UIHC Offers Immunotherapy for Cancer Patients

Jun 6, 2018

The Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Iowa has been approved to use a new therapy that harnesses the immune system to treat specific forms of leukemia and lymphoma. Dr. George Weiner is director of the center and says the therapy shows great promise.

The treatment uses T-Cells, or lymphocytes. T-Cells travel around the body inspecting every cell and killing those identified as abnormal. Cancer cells are able to multiply because T-Cells don't recognize them as invaders. The new therapy genetically modifies normal T-Cells to recognize an antigen contained in cancer cells. The modified cells, called CAR T-Cells, then travel through the body killing the cancer.

Dr. Umar Farooq, a hematologist and clinical assistant professor of internal medicine, oversees the CAR T-Cell team. He says the treatment at UI involves harvesting a patient's normal T-cells and then sending them to a lab to be modified. The modified cells are then reinfused into a patient's body.

"It's like a living drug," says Farooq. Once the CAR T-cells recognize their target, they multiply.

Although it's still early to measure success, Farooq says 40% to 50% of patients that achieve remission for a year using CAR T-cells, are still in remission. The treatment was first pioneered in a child. Emily Whitehead was thought to have a terminal cancer diagnosis, but after CAR T-Cell therapy she's been cancer free for five years.

During this episode of River to River, host Ben Kieffer speaks with Farooq and Weiner about the benefits and the downsides to the treatment. Weiner says side effects can be serious, mimicking what happens in the body when you have a serious infection. Cost is an obstacle, and there's still a lot that's unknown, like why the treatment works for some patients and not others.