It’s now possible to transform immune cells directly into “Super soldiers” inside the body; a person’s immune T cells are removed from the body, genetically enhanced to better target cancer cells, and infused back into the body.
In a breakthrough, a study led by Dr. Jonathan A. Epstein at Penn Medicine, directly transformed T cells inside the bodies of mice. The team used mRNA protected by nano-bubbles of fatty protein to dock onto T cells.
Once absorbed, the cells readily translated mRNA into proteins, dotting the outside of T cells-that acted as homing beacons to find and destroy heart cells responsible for scarring.
“The most notable advancement is the ability to engineer T cells for a specific clinical application without having to take them out of the patient’s body,” said Epstein.
Under constant threat, T cells gradually break down, depleting in number and strength. This is where CAR-Ts are important, or T cells genetically enhanced with chimeric antigen receptor.
Here, T cells are first extracted from the body-this is relatively easy since they live in our blood. Using genetic engineering, including CRISPR, the cells get a dose of new genes, CARs
Some even get “Brake” genes snipped out, turning T cells into formidable fighters that kill cancers on sight. The cells can exist for months to years, ready to get to work anytime. Unlike cancers, the cells that trigger heart scarring only briefly activate after an injury.
An earlier study used a virus to deliver genetic elements to help T cells in mice battle leukemia. The idea “Is ground-breaking because it’s a whole new way of thinking about a therapeutic application, redirecting the T cell to control other aberrant cells. Obviously that makes huge sense in cancer, but that’s just the start of things,” said Dr. Jeffrey Molkentin at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, who was not involved in the study.