How Does CAR-T Cell Therapy Work?

biotechnology fundamentals Aug 15, 2023
CAR-T Cell Therapy - How Does It Work

In the world of medical advancements, few breakthroughs have captured as much attention and hope as CAR-T cell therapy. This innovative approach to cancer treatment holds the promise of revolutionizing the way we combat certain types of cancer. But how does CAR-T cell therapy work, and what makes it so remarkable? In this article, we'll delve into the intricacies of CAR-T cell therapy and explore how it harnesses the body's immune system to target and destroy cancer cells.

Understanding CAR-T Cell Therapy

CAR-T cell therapy, short for Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell therapy, is a cutting-edge form of immunotherapy designed to treat specific types of cancer, especially those that have been resistant to traditional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. The therapy involves engineering a patient's own T cells—immune cells responsible for recognizing and attacking foreign or abnormal cells—into specialized cancer-fighting cells.

This video, created by Dana Farber Cancer Institute provides an excellent visual overview of how T cells work, and why modification of these cells is an effective strategy in the fight against cancer.



The CAR-T Cell Therapy Process

The following is a high level overview of the CAR-T process, follow this link to learn more about common unit operations in a cell therapy manufacturing process.


Collection of T Cells:

In an autologous CAR-T process, we begin with the collection of a patient's T cells through a process called leukapheresis. In this step, blood is drawn from the patient and passed through a machine that separates out the T cells. These collected T cells are then sent to a laboratory for genetic modification.


Genetic Engineering:

In the lab, the T cells are genetically modified to express Chimeric Antigen Receptors (CARs) on their surface. These CARs are synthetic molecules that combine the specificity of an antibody with the T cell's natural ability to attack cells. CARs are designed to recognize a specific protein or antigen present on the surface of cancer cells.


Expansion and Activation:

The modified T cells are then cultured and multiplied to create a large population of CAR-T cells. This process takes several days. During this time, the CAR-T cells are activated and primed to recognize and attack cancer cells.



Once a sufficient number of CAR-T cells have been generated, they are infused back into the patient's bloodstream. This is typically done through a simple intravenous infusion, similar to a blood transfusion.


Targeting Cancer Cells:

Once inside the body, the CAR-T cells patrol the bloodstream, seeking out cells that express the specific antigen they have been engineered to recognize. When the CAR-T cells encounter cancer cells, they bind to the antigen on the cancer cell's surface and initiate a powerful immune response.


Immune Response:

Upon binding to the cancer cells, the CAR-T cells become activated and release cytotoxic substances that destroy the cancer cells. This process not only kills the targeted cancer cells but also triggers an immune response that can lead to the destruction of nearby cancer cells.


Persistence and Memory:

One of the remarkable features of CAR-T cell therapy is its potential for creating a long-lasting immune memory. Some CAR-T cells can persist in the body for months or even years, offering ongoing surveillance against cancer recurrence.


CAR-T cell therapy represents a paradigm shift in cancer treatment, highlighting the potential of harnessing the body's own immune system to fight and conquer cancer. With its ability to target specific antigens on cancer cells and trigger a potent immune response, CAR-T cell therapy offers new hope for patients who have exhausted traditional treatment options.

While this innovative therapy has shown remarkable success in certain types of cancer, challenges remain, including managing potential side effects, optimizing effectiveness, and broadening its applicability across different cancer types. Nonetheless, the rapid evolution of CAR-T cell therapy continues to inspire researchers and clinicians to explore its potential, bringing us one step closer to a future where cancer can be fought and conquered more effectively than ever before.