When children are diagnosed with pediatric cancer, most doctors are forced to reach for the same standard therapies that were available decades ago. Research oncologists at Children’s National Hospital are changing that with clinical trials that will hopefully train the body’s immune system – specifically its T cells – to fight the tumors.
Holly Meany, M.D., and her colleague Amy Hont, M.D., oncologists and research scientists at the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, have put together a pair of clinical trials that are investigating two pathways for using T cells to go after solid tumors.
“At Children’s National, we have a novel immunotherapy to offer to patients with relapsed or refractory solid tumors,” said Meany, director of the Solid Tumor Program. “This is a patient population who has failed standard therapy, so new technologies and treatments are always needed in this group.”
Where we started
Meany’s trial laid the foundation. She began the center’s research using a patient’s own blood sample to develop a targeted therapy and evaluate the safety and efficacy of this approach. In her study, scientists isolated the T cells, grew millions in a lab and reinfused them into the patient. The cells were replicated in an environment that was rich in three proteins that are commonly found on the surface of solid tumor cancer cells.
“Our hope and hypothesis are that when we give the T cells back to the patient, those T cells circulate and hunt down the cancer cells that have the tumor proteins,” Meany said. “We are hoping to use the patient’s own immune system to attack the cancer in an enduring way.”
Where we are headed
Hont’s phase 1 trial, which is currently recruiting participants, builds on Meany’s work using a healthy donor whose T cells have not been impacted by chemotherapy or other treatments. The cells can be prepared, stored and readily available for patients who need them. They are also matched through specific proteins on the patient’s own cells to bolster their effectiveness. The participants in this trial have Wilms tumors, rhabdomyosarcoma, neurosarcoma, soft tissue sarcoma or neuroblastoma, but conventional therapies including chemotherapy, radiation or surgery were unable to fully treat the disease.
In both studies, Hont said that the T cells have been given in an outpatient setting with fewer side effects compared to other cancer treatments aimed at high-risk malignancies.
“This allows patients to really maintain a good quality of life during a particularly hard time,” Hont said. “Also, these T cells are designed to act in the body the way that our immune system acts in a physiologic way. This means patients typically don’t have the severe side effects that we think of with chemotherapy or other therapies.”
Children’s National leads the way
The team at Children’s National is one of the few in the country to offer this kind of T-cell therapy for solid tumors. “Immunotherapy has been challenging for this patient population because the tumors are adept at finding out ways to evade treatment,” Hont said. “Giving patients a chance to receive a targeted T-cell therapy, while also maintaining a high quality of life, is something that’s special here.”