Engineering Immune Cells to Kill Cancer

Cell engineering has been especially effective in some blood cancers that were considered universally lethal less than a decade ago.

Wendell Lim, PhD (above, right), is programming cells to fight disease and ushering in a whole new realm of therapeutics while doing so. He and other UCSF scientists are programming T cells, the armed guards of the immune system, to recognize, hunt, and kill cancer cells. T cells are the perfect candidates because they have a keen memory for interlopers and are forever primed for attack if the same intruder finds its way into the body again. 

Some cancers escape notice by the immune system, so scientists engineer T cells to look for features common to the surface of cancer cells. They remove the patient’s T cells with a simple blood draw. Then they use a neutered virus to modify the DNA of the T cell to produce receptors that will recognize cancer cells as pathogens. Once modified, the T cells are put back into the patient, where they hunt down cancer cells and kill them. 

Cell engineering has been particularly effective in some blood-based cancers that were deemed universally lethal less than a decade ago. The advance isn’t just a short extension of life; it can be a full cure. Yet the promise of cell engineering extends far beyond cancer, says Lim, the Byers Distinguished Professor, chair of UCSF’s Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, and director of the UCSF Center for Synthetic Immunology. Cells could be engineered to halt the degeneration seen in dementia or repair tissue damage in congenital heart disease and spinal injury.  

Engineered cells will be programmed to mimic the complexity of the immune system itself, killing diseased cells while leaving healthy tissues untouched and promoting healing in organs previously thought out of reach. 

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