How Scientists Built A ‘Living Drug’ to beat Cancer
This piece in the WIRED is an adaptation from the book The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer. Quite a riveting story about how when the parents of a six year old offered a bunch of researchers a chance to save their daughter when doctors of conventional medicine had given up all hope. How these researchers had been trialling the cure for decades and finally came up with the ‘Breakthrough” goes to demonstrate the perseverance of scientists and more importantly the incremental contributions made by several scientists working on the solution across the world, which all added up to the eventual ‘discovery’.
“Emily Whitehead would be the world’s first kid to try an experimental cancer therapy, called CAR-T. Researchers were offering to reprogram her immune cells into a clone army of cancer-targeting serial killers. A CAR-T CELL is a reengineered T cell that has been removed from the cancer patient, tweaked in the lab to recognize that patient’s cancer, and then injected back into the patient. Because each of these reengineered cells is a monstrous robocop-like assemblage of immune cell parts, researchers had given their invention the equally monstrous name of “Chimeric Antigen Receptor T cell” (in Greek mythology, the chimera is a patchwork monster combining aspects of a lion, goat, and serpent), but “CAR-T” sounds much better.
CAR-T is often called the “most complex drug ever created,” but it is not really a drug in the traditional sense. Unlike an inert molecule introduced to the body for some temporary effect, CAR-T is alive. If it worked as designed, this “living drug” would go on living in Emily’s bloodstream like a cancer-killing superpower, providing her with a sort of immunity against her disease. And in the process, it would give humanity a revolutionary new weapon in the war on cancer.
THE HUNDREDS OF millions of T cells that patrol our bloodstreams and lymph nodes are expert at recognizing sick body cells and killing them. And, although the idea was dismissed by most scientists for the past 100 years, a handful of these T cells are predisposed to recognizing and killing cancer, too.
So, why doesn’t our immune system do that job? You always know when you have a cold or the flu, but cancer arrives without so much as a sniffle. Why does it usually require a test to know that we have this deadly disease?
The answer to that question came in a series of breakthrough discoveries of how cancer uses tricks to turn off, hide from, and overwhelm our immune response. Cancer shuts down T cells before they get a chance to call for reinforcements, reproduce into an overwhelming clone army, and do their job. But what if there was a way to overwhelm cancer instead, barraging it with huge numbers of immune cells capable of recognizing and killing it?”