Researchers engineer immune cells to fight tumors

A new study has been published by engineering and medical researchers at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. The study shows how engineered immune cells can be used in new cancer therapies to overcome physical barriers allowing the patient's immune system to fight cancer tumors. Researchers on the project believe the breakthrough could improve cancer therapy for millions of people around the world in the future.

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that helps the patient's immune system fight cancer growth. T cells are a type of white blood cell that are critical in the immune system. Cytotoxic T cells are likened to soldiers sent out to search and destroy targeted invader cells. Immunotherapy has found success in fighting some types of cancer in the blood or blood-producing organs, but T cells aren't as successful in fighting solid tumors.

Researchers on the study engineered T cells and developed engineering design criteria to mechanically optimize the cells and make them more fit to overcome the barriers of reaching the cancer cells inside a tumor. Researchers note that in a fibrous tumor, the stiffness of the tumor causes the immune cells to slow down by a factor of two.

The study is the first that has identified some structural and signaling elements where T cells can be tuned to make them more effective at fighting cancer. Every obstacle course inside a tumor is a bit different, but they all have some similarities. The team engineered the immune cells and found they moved through the tumor almost twice as fast no matter what obstacles they faced.

The engineered cytotoxic T cells used advanced gene-editing technologies to change the DNA of T cells to allow them to better overcome barriers inside the tumor. Researchers are currently working to create cells that are good at overcoming different types of barriers. When the cells are mixed together, the goal is for groups of immune cells to overcome various barriers to reaching cancer cells inside the tumor. In the future, researchers on the project plan to continue studying the mechanical properties of cells to better understand how immune cells and cancer cells interact. There are plans for animal trials and human clinical trials in the future.