Q&A: The Promise of T-Cell Therapy

In 2014, Children’s National treated its first patients using “T-cell therapy,” a revolutionary approach to destroying cancer cells using a patient’s own cells. Dr. Catherine Bollard, who oversees the Program for Cell Enhancement and Technologies for Immunotherapy (CETI) at Children’s National, explains what makes this treatment so different – and so promising for children with cancer and other diseases. Q. What is T-cell therapy? A. T-cell therapy is the ultimate personalized therapy to fight dangerous viruses and cancer cells. We take blood from the patient and then “train” the T-cells to kill the cancer. Once the T-cells are ready, they are injected back into the patient, where they can travel throughout the body to seek out, find, and destroy the cancer cells. Q. What are the biggest benefits of T-cell therapy? A. Chemotherapy and radiation can kill cancer cells, but they also damage healthy tissues and the body’s ability to fight off infection. T-cell therapy tackles the immediate problem and also aims to protect patients for the rest of their lives. Q. Does T-cell therapy work? A. Yes. Cell therapies have a response rate of more than 80 percent for successfully preventing or treating life-threatening infections after bone marrow transplant. We have an astounding 50 percent disease-free survival rate at two years for some cancer patients with the poorest prognoses, including patients who have failed all other therapies. Q. What makes Children’s National’s effort in researching T-cell therapy unique? A. Children’s National is one of the few hospitals in the world to offer cellular therapy to treat life-threatening infections in patients with immune deficiencies, as well as preventing or treating relapse in children with cancer. Q. What special equipment do you need to train T-cells? A. To grow these highly specialized cells, we've created a state-of-the-art good manufacturing practice (GMP) facility. The new GMP unit at Children’s National is unique – it’s the only standalone GMP facility in a pediatric hospital that processes stem cells for transplant and also manufactures these novel cell therapeutics. Q. What are your team’s future plans to advance T-cell therapy? A. The CETI team continues to train some T-cells to fight viruses and to teach others to target cancer cells, such as leukemias and lymphomas. We are also developing cell therapies to fight any type of inflammation. For example, a study will launch this year to investigate applications for children suffering from inflammatory bowel disease. The team is also building a bank of trained T-cells, with the goal of matching and deploying them to children who can benefit. This resource will allow CETI to be a fast and viable option for all children who may need this promising new therapy. Q. What inspired you personally to do this kind of work? A. A friend of mine, Diana, was 17 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma. Sadly, at that time in 1985, her only treatment options were numerous rounds of highly toxic chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It took her about four years to reach a durable and complete remission. She was finally at a point when she felt she could move on and live her life. However, tragically, only four months after marrying a wonderful man, she was diagnosed with leukemia, which was a devastating side effect from the chemotherapy and radiation she had received for her lymphoma treatment. She died at age 24, only four months after the diagnosis. At that time I made it my focus to develop new cancer therapies that would only kill the cancer cells, not the healthy cells, and that would not cause the devastating side effects that my friend suffered.

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