CAR-T and Immunotherapy (Republish)

In honor of CAR-T entering the FDA approval process, here is a re-publish of a blog I wrote last year about immunotherapy. It is incredible to read the first paragraph describing the importance of CAR-T to families like ours. One year on (49 weeks to be exact!), CAR-T begins the journey of FDA approval. Your CellCycle donation supported CAR-T last year. Your support for CellCycle absolutely changes lives.

You may begin to hear about research on so-called "immunotherapy." This long word describes treatments that use our body's own defenses to fight cancer. The very first blog I wrote on CellCycle was about a treatment called Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-Cell therapy (CAR-T). Simply put, this therapy uses your body's own infection-fighting T-cells and retrains them as cancer-fighting T-cells. You may have read in "Etta's Story" that Etta's form of leukemia has an increased risk for relapse. For families like ours, CAR-T represents another tool to have in our back pocket and has demonstrated tremendous promise in fighting aggressive forms of leukemia like Etta's. I am eager to see CAR-T available to consumers. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society provides funding for CAR-T studies. 

The story of immunotherapy begins some time ago with Denis Burkitt who was born on Feb. 28, 1911 in rural Northern Ireland. Burkitt's' father was credited with pioneering the practice of marking birds to map out their territories and movements. You will see why this is important in a moment. Burkitt was intensely smart and very curious by all accounts. Burkitt enrolled at the prestigious Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland and choose a career in medicine after successfully passing chemistry, a subject I also thought would keep me out of medical school. As a medical student Burkitt attended evangelistic rallies and developed what could only be described as a 'persuasive' speaking style.

In 1938, after training as a surgeon, Denis spent 5 months on a cargo ship bound for Manchuria, planning his life as a surgeon and missionary. But his application for the Colonial Services in West Africa was rejected. The official reason was his glass right eye, although Denis suspected it was because of his religious zeal. Did I fail to mention Dennis had only one eye? No big deal.


Dennis did make his way to West Africa and made several significant contributions to science while in West Africa. After seeing many children with unusually large tumors located in the jaw, Burkitt put down his scalpel and picked up his map. Just like his father had done with birds many years before, Denis Burkitt carefully plotted the locations of children with these uniquely large jaw tumors on a map and realized they occurred in highly malaria endemic areas. Burkitt surmised that the tumor was caused by an infection, perhaps caused by a mosquito. However, the truth was that the tumor arose in patient's with malaria, whose immune systems were weakened because of their infection. Thus the idea that the immune system plays a critical role in cancer was born and so was Burkitt's Lymphoma, an aggressive B-cell lymphoma that I have diagnosed many times. We would see this again in the developed world when, beginning in the 1980's with the AIDs epidemic, many HIV+ patients would die of aggressive forms of lymphomabecause of their weakened immune system. Perhaps if a weekend immune system can cause cancer, then a strengthened and smarter immune system can cure cancer? 

This is increasingly being proven in research. Maybe the cure for Cancer is right under our noses -- and by nose I mean cell membrane (nerd alert). If you are curious what other medical discoveries Denis Burkitt made during his career, look no further than the high-fiber diet. Yes. In 1950's West Africa a young Denis Burkitt was yelling at people to eat more fiber!  How did he figure that out? Maps my friend. Many, many maps.

Frank MooreComment