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One of your co-subscribers to this blog contacted me and asked if I would write a blog about CAR-T cells, and I have decided to include the closely related bi-specific antibody therapies. I am very intimidated by even attempting this, because the complexities of this field are daunting, so please do NOT show this post to your PhD immunologist cousin.
As most readers probably know, the immune system consists broadly of the “humoral” and “cellular” arms. When you get corona virus, (or any other virus) both arms are activated. Broadly speaking, your B-cells (lymphocytes that live in the lymph nodes and also circulate in your blood stream) make antibodies that attach to targets (“antigens” – in the case of corona virus, the spike protein you are tired of looking at on TV is the target antigen we hope a vaccine can be made from) and can inhibit the virus or can clear the antigen from your circulation. Antibodies consist of proteins (chains) that combine with each other and this is where things start getting VERY complex, but a single B-cell can make only one type of antibody (called a monoclonal antibody). Whether you know it or not, if you have an interest in prostate cancer, monoclonal antibody technology is “why you are here” – PSA detection was made possible by isolating a monoclonal antibody that would bind to Prostate Specific Antigen. But with modern recombinant DNA techniques, the chains that make up these antibodies can be combined in highly variable ways never found in nature. The history and complexity of the antibody story is illustrated here from this article.
The Y-shaped figure above is “an antibody” and the colored chains are the proteins in the antibody that can be extremely variable and give the antibody its ability to bind to any target. Note that the two arms of the antibody could be designed so that one arm would bind to one target and the other arm could bind to a different target. Voila! You could design one arm to bind to PSMA and another to a killer T-cell that would link a killer cell to your cancer cell.
This is the general idea behind an innovative cancer approach you may hear about called BiTE. In this figure, the working part of the tips of two “Y” antibodies have been linked and when injected into a patient, in theory the “killer” T-cell is forced to bind to the tumor cell via its “TAA” or tumor antigen. If you are a dedicated reader of this blog, you already are thinking about a great target antigen I previously introduced you to, PSMA.
Now on to my VERY oversimplified description of CAR-T cells. The terminology refers to Chimeric Antigen Receptor – T cells. The science of these is related to the above description of antibodies in the following way: On the surface of the T-cells in your lymphocyte library is a completely different group of proteins that allow the T-cells to bind to and recognize antigens, much like the antibody system we discussed above. These proteins combine in chains on the surface of the cells to form “T-cell receptors”. Unlike the antibody system, their interactions with antigens are further modified by requiring recognition of “self”. Non “self” is why people who receive a kidney or heart transplant must receive drugs to suppress the immune system that will reject the transplant. Unfortunately cancer cells are mostly recognized as “self” so we don’t reject them. BUT… again using recombinant DNA technology, the T-cell receptors (TCR) can be re-designed so they DO recognize a tumor target, even though it is “self”. You can start with lazy, somewhat unresponsive T-cells that might be in the blood or even infiltrating a tumor, take them out, modify the receptor (dramatically as shown in the following figure), and force them to recognize a cancer, then re-infuse them into the patient like any blood transfusion.
In the figure (taken from this article), the “antibody like” part of the receptor that controls “self” is CD3 and the “antibody like” part of the TCR receptor that binds to a tumor antigen or virus infected cell are the green proteins marked alpha and beta. The recombinant magic that is WAY beyond this blog is everything on the right. If you have the time and interest in really delving into CAR-T therapy for cancer, you really do have to read this article. But, for those who wonder “so why aren’t we doing this?”, the Cliff’s Notes answer is that (1) it is VERY expensive – each patient has to have his/her T-cells taken out and modified, expanded, then re-infused; (2) it has only worked well for blood cancers like leukemias so far; and (3) even though PSMA or some similar tumor target might be thought to be “tumor specific”, it turns out these targets are often expressed in low levels in places like your brain or lung. When the CAR-T cells begin attacking your normal tissues, you are in a world of hurt. If you have followed the COVID-19 story, you may have heard about the “cytokine storm” that is killing people by destroying their lungs. As you might imagine, combining these approaches with the other “hot” area of immunotherapy, the PD-1 inhibitors I have previously written about could make CAR-T treatment more effective but the toxicities even worse.
I hope this has been helpful and that your immunologist cousin or highly informed oncologist will forgive the effort to simplify a very promising but challenging field. I’m also grateful to the myriad of incredible researchers who have put this all together for us “cancer fighters” and their dedication is equally as worthy of honor as other warriors on front lines.