Recycling t-cells into super soldiers

May 12, 2021

Many know Patrick Hwu, MD, is not only Moffitt Cancer Center’s President and CEO, a physician, and his bandmates know him as the keyboardist, but he is also a scientist, according to a news release from the cancer center.

When Hwu came to Tampa last fall, he brought his research — and five researchers who worked alongside him at MD Anderson — with him. At the beginning of this year, the lab was up and running, ready to continue the work.

“It’s really exciting for me to come in and do some of the same things we were doing before, but also be able to do some different things based on the environment at Moffitt,” said Hwu. “This is a very unique environment where we have incredible core facilities, so we will be able to do things here we weren’t able to do before.”

The focus of Hwu’s research is T-cell therapy, treatment that involves taking a type of immune cell called T cells out of the body, engineering them in the lab to attack cancer and infusing them back into the patient.

However, cancer can still evade the engineered “soldiers,” so Hwu hopes their research can take T-cell therapy one step further.

“We already have these wonderful soldiers to attack cancer, but the question is how can we make super soldiers?” said Hwu. “To give patients better outcomes, we have to make sure T cells can recognize the cancer and infiltrate the battlefield. They have to survive in the battlefield and fight hard without getting knocked out by the noxious molecules that the tumor makes.”

To do so, the research team is experimenting with adding and deleting genes and working on ways to make T cells younger.

“We want to make them so powerful we only have to give a few. If we have to just give a handful of Green Berets it’s better than putting in an entire army, so it’s less expensive and more economical,” said Hwu.

The lab is starting to study this type of T-cell therapy in triple negative breast cancer, then will focus on advanced resistant melanoma, pancreatic cancer and glioblastoma.  “Those cancers are very, very hard to treat, so I want to attack the toughest ones,” said Hwu.

The ultimate goal is to use the lab’s research to create clinical trials that could potentially lead to new treatment approvals.

“I am confident we can win this battle,” said Hwu. “We know these concepts work so I am really hoping that cell therapy can help these patients.”

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