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How Cancer Immunotherapy Is Getting Even Better

From TIME - February 2, 2018

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration approved two new immunotherapies to treat certain leukemias and lymphomas. Now, in a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers detail who is most likely to benefit from the treatments, called CAR T cell therapy.

CAR T cell therapy trains the bodys immune system to target and destroy cancer cells in the blood; scientists take peoples own immune cells (T cells) and genetically engineer them to seek out and destroy cancer cells. The immune system can then attack cancer cells in the same way it does bacteria and viruses, and the therapy can lead to remissions from blood cancers of up to 80%.

But Dr. Jae Park, lead author of the research, says that many of those studies only follow people for a year or so, since CAR T cell therapy is still so new. Park, an assistant attending physician at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, studied 53 people with acute lymphoblastic leukemia for up to five and a half years after they received CAR T therapy.

Before getting the one-time infusion of genetically engineered T cells, doctors generally use chemotherapy to eliminate as much cancer as possible. All of the people in the study had received several rounds of chemotherapy but their cancer returned. Park and his colleagues found that people who had the least amount of disease before receiving the CAR T therapy had the longest median survival overall and also experienced the fewest side effects from the treatment, such as potentially fatal brain swelling.

MORE: What If Your Immune System Could Be Taught to Kill Cancer?

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