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Crafting a better T cell for immunotherapy

T-cell therapy, a form of immunotherapy that uses a patient’s own immune cells to attack their cancer, has been making waves recently. The “living” therapy involves engineering the patient’s T cells in the laboratory to carry new proteins that guide the immune cells directly to tumor cells, allowing the engineered T cells to attack and kill the cancer.

Now, a group of researchers led by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center immunotherapy researcher Dr. Stanley Riddell has devised a new approach that could speed and improve this process, using a special, small protein tag that can be used to purify and track the T cells once they have been engineered in the laboratory.

Riddell and his team describe the approach, and its effect on human cancer cells in the laboratory and on a mouse model of lymphoma, in a study published Monday in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Although not yet tested in humans, the researchers believe this new approach could improve on current T-cell therapy methods in several ways:

  • by boosting the cells’ potency,
  • by growing larger numbers of cancer-fighting T cells,
  • by adding a potential “kill switch” to quickly deactivate the cells in patients’ bodies in the event of toxic side effects and
  • by cutting down the immune cell processing time from the current 14 to 20 days before reinfusion to 9 days or less.

Juno Therapeutics, a biotechnology company initially formed on technology from researchers at Fred Hutch, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Seattle Children’s Research Institute, has an exclusive license to the tag technology for uses related to oncology (as well as a non-exclusive license for other purposes).