Car t-cell therapy offers new cancer solution

By Hanna Kim, Opinion Editor

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Graphic by Caroline Cho, Feature Editor

My grandfather passed away on Christmas Eve after a long and complicated surgery to extract the cancer cells in his lungs.

What started as a potential case of pneumonia became a fight between life and death. The journey started with a diagnosis and ended with a machine that kept him alive until everyone could say goodbye.

The surgery meant to cure my grandfather of cancer only sped up the deterioration process. By the time my dad arrived in Korea, the cancer cells had already shut down my grandfather’s consciousness. Had the treatment not been so quick to harm my grandfather’s other bodily functions, my dad might have made it in time to say goodbye.

Until now, cancer has been treated with chemotherapy or surgery, with the occasional targeted therapies. These methods, focused on eliminating the cancer cells themselves, have been known to cause serious side effects.

This August, however, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new kind of treatment: the Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) t-cell cancer therapy. This method of treatment utilizes immunotherapy, the act of strengthening the patient’s immune system to fight unwelcome substances, to cure cancer.

Initially, this project was reserved for patients with a specific kind of cancer: acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Known by its shortened name, leukemia results from an overproduction of white blood cells by the bone marrow. These white blood cells often attack, and sometimes permanently damage, critical organs in the body.

Scientists extracted some of the specialized white blood cells, called t-cells, of the afflicted patients, added chimeric antigen receptors, which have similar receptors to those of the cancer cells, onto the surface of the t-cell, and then injected them into the patient’s body once again. Now stronger and able to recognize cancer cells distinctly, these t-cells could attack and kill the harmful substances without damaging any other vital cells in the body.

The t-cells in the body usually produce chemicals that will destroy an invasive substance. Different types of t-cells perform slightly varying tasks, and of those types, the memory t-cell ensures the success of CAR t-cell cancer therapy. These memory t-cells stay long after the harmful substance is eliminated, readying the body for another attack if need be. When applied to cancer, these memory t-cells could build an immunization to future cancer cells, ending all possibilities of recurrence.

According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, a study done on patients with blood cancer showed that 90 percent of its subjects had achieved remission after receiving CAR t-cell therapy.

To the casual observer, these studies sound promising and reassuring for afflicted patients and families. However, almost every study on CAR t-cell therapy has only researched the short-term effects on cancer patients, and scientists may come to find more negative consequences on the patients over time.

Despite the lack of knowledge of its long-term effects, the introduction of this new method is a refreshing breath of air from the same cancer treatments doctors have been using for decades. The National Cancer Institute stated that chemotherapy, though responsible for the recoveries of hundreds of thousands of cancer patients, evidently harms the patient. This method of cancer therapy does curb cancer cell growth, but it does so by targeting all cells that grow and divide rapidly. The cells of our skin, hair, intestines, and, most importantly, bone marrow fall under this category. Since the bone marrow produces white blood cells, the body loses its protection against bodily invasions and becomes vulnerable to infections during this time.

The psychological stress that usually comes with a cancer diagnosis exacerbates the physical harm done by chemotherapy, ensuring that the infections convert into severe, full-fledged illnesses. Though a cancer patient may be recovering from leukemia, he or she may suffer from fevers of over 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit, sore throats, and swelling in certain parts of the body. What seems like tolerable, everyday illnesses to a healthy person are, in reality, added burdens to a patient’s unrelenting battle against cancer.

With the CAR t-cell therapy, healthy cells will not be directly attacked by the medicine and, instead, will be distinguished from the detrimental cancer cells. Although scientists still lack information on the therapy’s long-term effects, its immediate benefits are obvious.

To these families who have had to watch their loved ones grow weaker by the minute, who felt helpless by cancer’s destruction, or who lost them before they could even say goodbye, a new, safer treatment method will come as a relief  and offer hope.

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