Cells, Tiny but Mighty, Beating Blood Cancers for 50 Years

3 Min. Read | September 9, 2021

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The History of Treating Blood Cancers with Cells 

Several leukemias, lymphomas, myelomas and other blood cancers have succumbed to the powers of cell therapies. Early on, it was from fairly dangerous donor stem cells harvested from bone marrow. Since then, researchers have made tremendous strides in making the procedure safer, added the ability in many cases to use a patient’s own cells, and recruited a new type of immune cell, the T-cell, to join the charge.

The first successful blood stem cell transplant from the bone marrow of a donor occurred in 1968 at the University of Minnesota. Since then, advances made it possible to harvest stem cells from blood. This “peripheral blood stem cell transplant” is easier and safer. More than a million patients world-wide have been treated with more than a thousand a year today.

Research on how to make the procedure safer and easier for patients has never let up. Today’s improved supportive care after treatment reduces the chance for infections during the days after treatment when your immune system is rebuilding itself from the stem cells. The conditioning regimen to clear old or diseased cells from the bone marrow has also become much gentler.

Recruiting CARs — CAR-T Cells That Is

The first attempt to recruit the immune system’s T cells to fight cancer occurred 25 years ago. It failed. Over the next years, researchers figured out how to super charge the T-cells with CARs, chimeric antigen receptors. This genetic tool helps T cells target a protein on the surface of cancer cells allowing them to do what comes naturally to T cells—kill foreign cells, including cancer.

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute had the first success with the strategy in 2010 for lymphoma and other groups soon reported impressive results. Over 90 percent of patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia got a rapid and complete response in one study. The first CAR-T therapy was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2017 and today four more have been approved. (see list below)

Current research centers on making the targeting of cancer cells even more efficient and on taming serious side effect. The therapy can trigger a cytokine storm, causing severe inflammation similar to the cytokine storm seen in severe COVID-19. Scientists at the Fred Hutchison Cancer Center in Seattle have designed better CARs that can detect even tiny amounts of the target protein. Several groups are trying various doses and timing of giving steroids and other compounds that have been able to reduce the side effects.  Approved CAR T Therapies include:

  • Abecma (idecabtagene vicleucel) for multiple myeloma
  • Breyanzi (lisocabtagene maraleucel) for B-cell lymphoma
  • Kymriah (tisagenlecleucel) for acute lymphoblastic leukemia and B-Cell lymphoma
  • Tecartus (brexucabtagene autoleucel) for mantel cell lymphoma
  • Yescarta (axicabtagene ciloleucel) for B-cell lymphoma and follicular lymphoma

The Future of Cell Therapies for Blood Cancers

We have many types of immune system cells in our blood and researchers are investigating most of them for potential to improve or target certain cancer therapies. Fate Therapeutics, another company co-founded by GoodCell co-founder Dr. David Scadden, recently announced positive results using a cell called a Natural Killer Cell (NK Cell) to treat B-cell lymphoma.

All the various white blood cells involved in your immune system are stored by GoodCell when you become a member. The number of blood stem cells stored by GoodCell are not sufficient for transplant today, but with the rapid advances in research that should change in the not-too-distant future. With your biobanked cells, you will be prepared when research turns cell science into cell medicine.

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