In the past 40 years, scientists have learned a great deal about how cells become cancerous. Some of that knowledge has translated to new treatments, but most of the time doctors are forced to rely on standard chemotherapy and radiation, which can do nearly as much damage to the patients as they do the tumors. This series looks at targeted treatments that are on the horizon, and what needs to be done to make them a reality.
When a virus invades the human body, the immune system springs into action. Specialized cells called killer T cells roam the body, identifying and killing infected cells, with help from countless other cells and molecules.
Cancer biologists have long been intrigued by the prospect of harnessing those T cells to attack tumors, either to supplement or replace traditional chemotherapy. Using T cells to wipe out tumor cells could avoid the side effects often seen with chemotherapy.
“It has great potential,” says Jianzhu Chen, an MIT biology professor working on T-cell therapies for cancer. However, success has been limited, he says, because the exquisite coordination needed to launch a T-cell attack has proven difficult to replicate.
MIT engineers have developed a way to attach drug-carrying pouches (yellow) to the surfaces of cells.
Image: Darrell Irvine and Matthias Stephan