CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) T cell therapy outsmarts cancer by using a patient’s own immune system, and it is saving lives—in some cases when all else has failed. These engineered T cells are removed from the cancer patient, genetically tailored in the lab to recognize that patient’s individual cancer, and then injected back into the body to find and kill tumor cells. Unlike a traditional small molecule drug with a temporary effect, CAR T therapy is a living drug given once that, theoretically, can protect the body for life.
“T cells act like little ‘decision-making robots,’ which can be reprogrammed to strike against a specific cancer—it’s a much more intelligent therapeutic approach,” says Damon Runyon Fellow Kyle G. Daniels, PhD, at the University of California, San Francisco. First-generation CAR T cells have proved effective only for a small number of patients with lymphoma and leukemia. Kyle is creating a sleek redesign that will give CAR T cells superior anticancer abilities to work more efficiently with fewer side effects, for more patients. “I wanted to have a more immediate impact on people’s lives, and this is probably about as close as a basic scientist can get to that.”
It’s a bold move. Most scientists who study CAR T cells are making small, incremental changes to one CAR T type. “My project is ambitious. We decided to look at thousands of CARs at once with diverse properties to find what makes the most effective CAR Ts,” Kyle explains. The volume of data he is collecting makes this particularly challenging. He is creating the tools to visualize complex, multi-dimensional data sets and extract meaningful information.
Buried within these data are clues to creating CAR T cells that divide more rapidly once re-injected into the body for a stronger upfront response to the cancer and last longer so that the therapy is more effective over time. “Already we’ve found cell signals that give us three or four times as many memory cells as the treatments that are on the market now,” he says.
Looking back four years ago, Kyle remembers turning down another prestigious award to accept the Damon Runyon Fellowship. “When you meet another scientist in the field, they know Damon Runyon, and it automatically gives you a bit of cancer ‘street cred.’ Having the time and private support from Damon Runyon has given me the freedom to trust my gut and follow my instincts.”