CAR T-cell therapy: the next step towards a holistic treatment of cancer

Narayana Subramaniam

As cancer is a disease which constantly evolves to evade treatment, we need to keep developing more sophisticated therapies with as few-side effects as possible. A new development on this front, holding the attention of many researchers worldwide, is the CAR T-cell therapy

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Wednesday, 8th February 2023
Page No. 11
Delhi Print Edition

The story so far:

The three major forms of treatment for any cancer are surgery (removing the cancer), radiotherapy (delivering ionising radiation to the tumour), and systemic therapy (administering medicines that act on the tumour). Surgery and radiotherapy have been refined significantly over time whereas advances in systemic therapy have been unparalleled. A new development on this front, currently holding the attention of many researchers worldwide, is the CAR T-cell therapy.

How has systemic therapy evolved?

Systemic therapy’s earliest form was chemotherapy; when administered, it preferentially acts on cancer cells because of the latter’s rapid, unregulated growth and poor healing mechanisms. Chemotherapeutic drugs have modest response rates and significant side-effects as they affect numerous cell types in the body. The next stage in its evolution was targeted agents, also known as immunotherapy. Here the drugs bind to specific targets on the cancer or on the immune cells that help the tumour grow or spread. This method often has fewer side-effects as the impact on non-tumour cells is limited. However, it is effective only against tumours that express these targets.

What are CAR T-cells?

Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapies represent a quantum leap in the sophistication of cancer treatment. Unlike chemotherapy or immunotherapy, which require mass-produced injectable or oral medication, CAR T-cell therapies use a patient’s own cells. They are modified in the laboratory to activate T-cells, a component of immune cells, to attack tumours.

These modified cells are then infused back into the patient’s bloodstream after conditioning them to multiply more effectively. The cells are even more specific than targeted agents and directly activate the patient’s immune system against cancer, making the treatment more clinically effective. This is why they’re called ‘living drugs’.

How does it work?

In CAR T-cell therapy, the patient’s blood is drawn to harvest T-cells which are immune cells that play a major role in destroying tumour cells. Researchers modify these cells in the laboratory so that they express specific proteins on their surface, known as chimeric antigen receptors (CAR). They have an affinity for proteins on the surface of tumour cells. This modification in the cellular structure allows CAR T-cells to effectively bind to the tumour and destroy it.

The final step in the tumour’s destruction involves its clearance by the patient’s immune system.

Where is it used?

As of today, CAR T-cell therapy has been approved for leukaemias (cancers arising from the cells that produce white blood cells) and lymphomas (arising from the lymphatic system). These cancers occur through the unregulated reproduction of a single clone of cells, that is, following the cancerous transformation of a single type of cell, it produces millions of identical copies. As a result, the target for CAR T-cells is consistent and reliable.

CAR T-cell therapy is also used among patients with cancers that have returned after an initial successful treatment or which haven’t responded to previous combinations of chemotherapy or immunotherapy.

Its response rate is variable. In certain kinds of leukaemias and lymphomas, the efficacy is as high as 90%, whereas in other types of cancers it is significantly lower. The potential side-effects are also significant, associated with cytokine release syndrome (a widespread activation of the immune system and collateral damage to the body’s normal cells) and neurological symptoms (severe confusion, seizures, and speech impairment).

How widespread is its use?

The complexity of preparing CAR T-cells has been a major barrier to their use. The first clinical trial showing they were effective was published almost a decade ago; the first indigenously developed therapy in India was successfully performed only in 2022.

The technical and human resources required to administer this therapy are also considerable. Treatments in the U.S. cost more than a million dollars. Trials are underway in India, with companies looking to indigenously manufacture CAR T-cells at a fraction of the cost. The preliminary results have been encouraging.

Will this therapy be expensive in India as well?

In India, introducing any new therapy faces the twin challenges of cost and value. Critics argue that developing facilities in India may be redundant and/or inappropriate as even when it becomes cheaper, CAR T-cell therapy will be unaffordable to most Indians. Those who are affluent and require the therapy currently receive it abroad anyway.

While this is true, it may be the right answer to the wrong question. Having access to a global standard of care is every patient’s right; how it can be made more affordable can be the next step.

Investments in developing these technologies in India represent the hope that, as with other initially expensive treatments like robotic surgery, we will be able to provide economies of scale. The sheer volume of patients in India has the potential to drive the cost of treatment down.

What are ‘cell therapies’?

The interest in the technology goes beyond providing a new lease of life to people with leukaemias and lymphomas. Even for solid tumours — like those of the prostate, lung, colon, and some other organs — CAR T-cell therapy has shown results, particularly in patients whose tumours have recurred or have evaded multiple lines of treatment. The challenge with harnessing these techniques for solid tumours remains significant. These are highly heterogeneous cancers that lack a consistent target with which CAR T-cells can bind. Progress in the field, however, has the potential to unlock a host of newer treatments on the horizon called cell therapies. They include personalised anti-cancer vaccines and tumour infiltrating lymphocyte therapies (where white blood cells that attack the tumour are extracted, modified, and reintroduced into the patient).

Cancer constantly evolves to evade treatment; similarly, we also need to keep developing more sophisticated therapies with as few-side effects as possible. Cell therapies hold this promise and will also help us understand this dreaded disease and its complexities better.

Dr. Narayana Subramaniam is head of the department of Head and Neck Oncology, Sri Shankara Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, Bengaluru

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