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Scientists Tried Arming White Blood Cells to Battle Cancer, and It Worked

Imagine there’s a war waging inside your body between two types of white blood cells. However, this war is not cancer. In reality, it’s a relatively new type of cancer treatment scientists have developed that fights infection from the inside out. Instead of using measured doses of radiation to kill cancerous cells, this treatment, called CAR-T cell therapy, uses white blood cells that have been harvested from your own body, modified to contain a cancer-fighting receptor, and then infused back into your blood stream. Once back in the game, these new super-cells basically hunt down cancer cells and blast them with fatal cytotoxins. 

Not a Perfect Cancer Treatment, But a Better One

If it sounds too good to be true, it really isn’t. CAR-T cell therapy has been around for several years now. And during this time, scientists have labored to work out the kinks. It’s still not perfect, but it’s getting better all the time. In 2017, it was first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a legitimate treatment for certain forms of cancer. Since that time, this revolutionary new form of immunotherapy has helped thousands of patients go into remission from illnesses such as acute lymphoblastic leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. 

A Living Drug to Fight Cancer

Doctors at Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center in New York have referred to CAR-T cell therapy as the equivalent of a "living drug," given to patients to help their own bodies ward off the devastating effects of cancer. To begin the process, doctors harvest healthy T-cells from the affected patient, modify the cells by adding a Chimeric Antigen Receptor, or CAR, and then reinfuse the modified cells back into the patient’s body. Once inside, the CAR-T cells bind to a specific type of protein, or antigen, that is only present in cancerous cells. Once bound, the CAR-Ts release cytotoxins which then kill the cancerous cells. 

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But Does It Make the Patient Sick? 

Unfortunately, there can be a serious side-effect of CAR-T cell therapy, called Cytokine Release Syndrome (CRS), that’s potentially fatal. However, when caught in time, it’s usually treatable. CRS causes symptoms such as high fevers and flu-like symptoms. But it can also prompt major organs, such as the heart, brain, and liver, to stop functioning. 

The good news is that scientists have been working on ways to prevent CRS during CAR-T cell therapy, and they’ve recently made breakthroughs with a drug commonly used to treat hepatitis. This has proven effective in toggling the modified T-cells on and off in laboratory mice. And researchers hope to begin human trials within the next year. 

So, the next time someone you know is diagnosed with blood cancer, remember — there is much more hope now than there was just a decade ago. And a year from now, things may look even brighter, thanks to the dedicated scientists and doctors who thought to arm a single white blood cell and send it into battle.