Immunotherapy uses the power of a patient’s own immune system to attack
At Atlantic Health System Cancer Care, doctors are harnessing the power of patients’ own immune cells to fight back against certain blood cancers, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma (B-cell subtype) and some forms of acute leukemia (B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia). For patients who have especially hard-to-treat forms of these cancers or those who have relapsed after other forms of treatment, the availability of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T immunotherapy may prove to be lifesaving.
Approved by the FDA in 2017, CAR T cell therapy is a form of immunotherapy that stimulates the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer, says Mohamad Cherry, MD, medical director of hematology for Atlantic Health System. “We take the patient’s blood lymphocytes, just as if they were donating blood. The lymphocytes are extracted from the blood and sent to an off-site lab, where they are reengineered to express certain proteins that attach to specific antigens on cancer cells and destroy them,” he explains.
The reengineering process takes approximately three weeks. During that time, patients receive chemotherapy to achieve a state of lympho-depletion. “The new cancer-fighting lymphocytes need to be introduced without competition, so we need to deplete any existing lymphocytes,” says Dr. Cherry. “In this safe environment, the new cells are able to grow in number and attack whatever cancer cells the patient has. The beauty of this technology is that, because we are using the patient’s own cells, the body won’t reject them. Also, the thinking is that the new cells can grow and regrow over a long time and keep attacking cancer cells.”
Adds Dr. Cherry, “This therapy has been restricted to very few sites in the United States. Even many large university hospitals do not have this. This is an advancement for Atlantic Health System – especially for our blood cancer program – and for the blood cancer patients in our region.”