Author: Tyler MacDonald

The clinical trial for a groundbreaking cancer treatment that engineers the immune system to better fight the disease is now taking place at the National Institute for Health Research and King’s College London, according to The Guardian. The patients, who have head and neck cancer, are receiving genetic modifications that help their white blood cells recognize and attack tumorous growths. Although white blood cells are naturally equipped to eliminate unnecessary and infected cells, they sometimes need help to combat cancer cells.

The team of scientists is taking blood samples and treating the white blood cells with a virus that introduces two new genes – the first makes cell growth in the laboratory easier, and the second helps the white blood cells identify and attack tumors.

“In most cancers, metastasis, the spread of a disease from the part of the body where it started to another not directly connected, is the commonest cause of death,” said John Maher, principal investigator of the trial. “However, head and neck cancer is unusual in that local spread or recurrence of the disease accounts for most suffering and death. This means that tumours may become inoperable and do not shrink in response to traditional treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy.”

The treatment is called a CAT T-cell and takes two weeks to create; once produced, it is injected directly into the patient’s tumor and helps white blood cells in their attack, according to The Scientist.

Although the treatment works best for “solid cancers,” Maher hopes that it can be further developed for other types as well, in particular “those that spread within a natural space in the body, such as ovarian cancer (lining of the abdomen) or mesothelioma (lining of the lungs),” according to Select Science.