Scientists race to improve ‘living drugs’ to fight cancer

Aaron Reid is lying in a hospital bed at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center when doctors arrive to make sure he’s ready for his experimental treatment.

“How’s your night? Any issues?” asks Dr. Katherine Barnett, a pediatric oncologist, as they begin to examine Reid.

Reid, 20, of Lucedale, Miss., has been fighting leukemia since he was 9 years old. He has been through chemotherapy and radiation twice, a bone marrow transplant and two other treatments.

But the leukemia keeps coming back. This time, the cancer is all over his body. He can feel the pain in his bones. He’s in Bethesda, Md., for what could be his last hope.

“The big plan for the day: Get the cells,” says Dr. Andrea Gross, another pediatric oncologist.

The cells are an experimental version of a relatively new cancer therapy called CAR-T. These CAR-T cells are sometimes called “living drugs” because they are engineered from patients’ own immune system cells.

“I think it’s amazing that they can find a way to use someone’s own … cells,” Reid says. “Take out their own cells, teach it to do something and then put it back in them, and to be able to heal them. I think that’s amazing.”

The engineered cells are made by extracting T cells — a key part of the immune system — from each patient’s blood and then genetically modifying them in the lab. The T cells that are created carry structures on their surface called chimeric antigen receptors, or CAR for short. Those receptors enable the cells to zero in and attack cancer.

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