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Using cancer’s strength to fight against it

New technique made human T cells 100 times more potent at killing cancer cells

Scientists at the UC San Francisco (UCSF) and Northwestern Medicine may have found a way around the limitations of engineered T cells by borrowing a few tricks from cancer itself.

By studying mutations in malignant T cells that cause lymphoma, they zeroed in on one that imparted exceptional potency to engineered T cells. Inserting a gene encoding this unique mutation into normal human T cells made them more than 100 times more potent at killing cancer cells without any signs of becoming toxic.

While current immunotherapies work only against cancers of the blood and bone marrow, the T cells engineered by Northwestern and UCSF were able to kill tumors derived from skin, lung and stomach in mice. The team has already begun working toward testing this new approach in people.

“We used nature’s roadmap to make better T cell therapies,” said Dr. Jaehyuk Choi, an associate professor of dermatology and of biochemistry and molecular genetics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “The superpower that makes cancer cells so strong can be transferred into T cell therapies to make them powerful enough to eliminate what were once incurable cancers.”

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