Implantable immunotherapy “factory” fights cancer faster, more effectively

Researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) have developed a marshmallow-like implant that can train a patient’s immune system to fight off cancer. In tests in mice, the technique was more effective against cancer and could be enacted much faster than other immunotherapies.

One of the most promising emerging cancer treatments is CAR T cell immunotherapy, where a patient’s immune cells are removed and activated to hunt down cancer, before being reintroduced to the body. As effective as the treatment has been, it takes several weeks to prepare, at very high cost.

For this new study, the NCSU team developed a way to perform a big chunk of this process inside the patient’s body. The researchers call the new technology Multifunctional Alginate Scaffolds for T cell Engineering and Release (MASTER), which as the name suggests, are sponge-like scaffolds that release CAR T cells.

The process starts much the same as regular CAR T cell therapy. First researchers collect T cells from a patient and program them to target cancer, by mixing them with an engineered virus that introduces the CAR gene. But the next step is different – the mixture is then added to a MASTER, which absorbs it like a sponge.

The MASTER contains antibodies that activate the T cells, as well as interleukins that trigger cell proliferation. After the device is implanted into a patient, the antibodies activate the T cells, which then interact with the viruses to become CAR T cells. The interleukins drive these CAR T cells to proliferate, and the newly trained army exits the MASTER to hunt down cancer in the body.

The team says the technique has several advantages over current CAR T cell immunotherapies. For one, it’s much faster, taking just hours instead of weeks. And because the cells are “fresher” they can last longer in the body, show stronger potency against cancer, and display fewer markers of T cell exhaustion.

Tests in mice with lymphoma demonstrated these advantages. The team treated one group with CAR T cells using a MASTER, another group with conventional CAR T cell therapy and a control group that received T cells that hadn’t been engineered.

“The end result is that the mice that received CAR-T cell treatment via MASTER were far better at fighting off tumors than mice that received conventional CAR-T cell treatment,” said Pritha Agarwalla, lead author of the study.