As doctors strive daily to make advancements in the challenging world of cancer research, a breakthrough has occurred: using genetic immune engineering to alter cells and teach them to target cancer. After risky trials and proven success, the process is now in development at multiple labs, which could soon change the way we fight cancer and other diseases.
T-Cells – The Stalking Killer Cell
The human immune system is meant to protect from disease and infection. Some of the key players in that role are T-cells, often referred to as killer cells because they fight against diseases and work to destroy cells they recognize shouldn’t be in the body. When looked at under a microscope, scientists say T-cells often have animal-like qualities as they stalk, hunt, and destroy disease cells.
In 2011, New York-based drug company Cellectis realized the potential in harnessing a T-cells natural behavior to fight certain cells and began developing a system to change the DNA instructions of a cell to help them fight cancer. Their research found that it was possible to use a virus to change the DNA makeup of a T-cell so that it could target leukemia. In the following years, the process has been tested in more than 300 patients with remarkable success.
New Therapy Saved 9 Year Old Layla Richards
Immune engineering first hit the media’s attention when it was used on a nine-year-old girl. In 2015, Layla Richards was fighting a severe case of leukemia that even multiple rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant couldn’t help. In a desperate move to save their daughter, Layla’s parents looked for alternative treatment options.
A London hospital had a vial of the most extensively engineered white blood cells ever that had been altered to hunt and kill leukemia. The issue was that the hospital didn’t have permission to test the cells in cancer treatment, and the cells had only been tested in mice. Drug development company Cellectis agreed to the risky test, knowing that the company’s stock and reputation were on the line, to try to save young Layla.
After months of treatment, Layla was announced cured in November 2015. It’s a huge step for Cellectis and gene engineering, which has since spread to multiple other labs and drug development companies. While details of Layla’s treatment are still unknown, the engineered cells are believed to have played a huge role in her survival.
Reprogramming Cells to Fight Cancer
The technique of changing the DNA of T-cells to target cancer was first limited to altering a patient’s own cells, but some patients, especially children, don’t have enough T-cells in their bloodstreams to sacrifice some for testing or treatment. That’s where Cellectis’s gene editing process comes in. The company’s goal is to use donor blood to create a “universal” supply of engineered T-cells that can be used on all patients fighting leukemia.
Unlike engineering a person’s own cells, edited cells require more engineering to remove the cell’s receptor, the aspect of the cell that decides what to attack. Without the extra step, the cells would likely start fighting everything in a person’s system because it would recognize it all as being foreign. With gene editing, the cells don’t act differently in a new person’s bloodstream than they would in the original host’s—they simply fight the targeted cells.
Bright Future for Immune Therapy
With immune therapy now making huge strides in cancer, companies around the world are looking at ways to harness the process for other diseases.
Drug giant Pfizer recently started engineering T-cells with the idea that the process and technology could soon create a practical treatment option. According to the head of Pfizer’s biotech unit, John Lin, “We think that this fundamental principle, engineering human cells, could have broad implications, and the immune system will be the most convenient vehicle for it, because they can move and migrate and play such important roles.”
Researchers are already at work trying to apply immune engineering to autoimmune disorders such as diabetes, lupus, or multiple sclerosis. Their work could lead to treatment breakthroughs in diseases that affect millions of people each year. There is also work being done on using the process for infectious diseases. In this scenario, a virus wouldn’t be completely destroyed, but rather permanently kept in check and basically stalled in the body without doing anything. This could be a huge development for HIV, one of the most prevalent infectious diseases.
The work has even shifted from doctors to developers, who take the established process and apply it in new ways using computer algorithms. The updated models from several developers, in coordination with medical labs, should go into testing later this year. Using modern technology to sequence T-cell DNA, experiments can now be completed at a much faster pace, allowing for a higher number of breakthroughs and developments.
However, researchers warn that although immune engineering could definitely change the face of medical treatment, it isn’t a sure thing yet. The treatment is fairly radical and will require potentially years of research and testing on monkeys and willing humans.
Although immune engineering treatments are potentially years from being openly available, the major breakthrough has brought new life to the drug development industry. Buoyed by the success of Cellectis in fighting cancer, it’s only a matter of time until the next breakthrough is announced.