Helping Cancer-Fighting Cells Not Run Out of Steam

Researchers identify source of immune cell exhaustion that diminishes the effectiveness of T-cell therapies

Close-up of a T cell attacking a virus

Image: Selvanegra/iStock/Getty Images Plus

At a glance:

  • Research pinpoints the source of immune cell exhaustion that may interfere with the efficacy of CAR-T treatments for cancer.
  • The study reveals that specific groups of proteins regulate immune cells’ ability to sustain key functions.
  • Discovery opens the door to new therapeutic approaches that prevent T cell therapies from losing potency over time.

Custom-made to attack cancer cells, CAR T-cell therapies have opened a new era in the treatment of cancer, particularly blood cancers. The approach involves extracting a patient’s own T cells and modifying them in the lab to make them better at spotting and killing tumors.

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Yet, all too often, these optimized CAR-T cells display a frustrating trait inherited from the original immune cells: a drastic loss of cancer-fighting fervor known as “T-cell exhaustion,” which can also affect how immune cells respond to other problems such as viral infections.

This vexing lapse into listlessness has diminished the effectiveness of CAR T-cell therapies in some patients and prompted scientists to find its source.

Now, Harvard Medical School researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and colleagues at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine have done just that.