Cellular Therapies Program

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Cellular therapies are designed to improve the immune system's ability to fight cancer. Manufacturing them involves collecting a specific set of cells from the blood, modifying them to produce a more vigorous attack on a patient's cancer cells, and then reinjecting them into the patient.

Many types of cellular therapy for cancer are being explored, including CAR T cells, other genetically modified T cells, tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL), vaccines, and NK cells.

At Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, clinical trials of cellular therapies are now underway for the treatment of a growing number of cancer types and non-cancerous diseases. We encourage you to check with your care team for more information about the availability of cellular therapy trials for your condition.

What Is Cellular Therapy?

Cellular therapies use cells, rather than chemical compounds or molecules, to fight cancer. Genetically modified therapies, such as CAR T-Cell therapy, use specific cells from a patient or donor to improve the cells' cancer-tracking and cancer-attacking ability. Other cellular therapies, such as TIL therapy, do not involve any modifications to a patient’s cells.

Types of Cellular Therapies

CAR T-Cell Therapies

Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy has been approved as standard of care for some types of blood cancers.

A new generation of CAR T-cell therapies, potentially better able to identify tumor cells and overcome tumors' evasive moves, is now in clinical testing. Trials of these therapies are also underway in patients with non-hematological malignancies such as prostate, breast, stomach and rectal cancers, among others.

Scientists are also exploring ways to make CAR T-cell therapies more effective as well as reduce the side effects of therapy.

Engineered T Cell Receptor (TCR) Therapy

Engineered T cell receptor (TCR) therapy works by genetically modifying T cells to produce a new receptor that enables them to latch onto specific target proteins on tumor cells. This enables TCR T cells to specifically target cancer cells and avoid normal cells, sparing patients some of the side effects associated with CAR T-cell therapy. Also, unlike CAR T cells, which take aim at antigen proteins on the tumor cell surface, TCR therapy targets antigens within the tumor cell, which are activated only when a cell is cancerous. This, too, can reduce side effects. 

Engineered TCR therapy is currently in clinical trials for patients with melanoma, sarcoma, and head and neck cancer.

Tumor-Infiltrating Lymphocyte (TIL) Therapy

TIL therapy involves collecting a sample of tumor tissue and extracting the T cells within it. The cells are allowed to multiply in a lab, then reinfused into the patient. TIL therapy is FDA approved for some patients with melanoma and trials are underway in several solid tumors such as cervical and lung cancer.

NK Cell Therapy

NK cells are part of the immune system's first line of defense against infection and disease. While they can detect and destroy infected and malignant cells directly, without having to be activated or “trained” to respond to them, it is now understood that NK cells perform better when they are activated by exposure to immune system substances called cytokines. Our program offers clinical trials of NK-cell therapy for patients with myelodysplastic syndrome, acute myeloid leukemia, and head and neck cancer.

Dr. Rizwan Romee on NK Cells

Rizwan Romee, MD, discusses upcoming trials of NK cell therapy in advanced hematologic malignancies.

Cellular Therapy vs. Stem Cell Transplant: What’s the Difference?

Unlike stem cell transplants, which use blood-forming stem cells, cellular therapies involve other types of cells, like immune cells or specialized T cells that can attack tumors. They may also involve tumor cells that have been re-engineered to draw an attack by the immune system. Unlike the cells used in a bone marrow transplant, these cells are altered before being infused back into the patient.

Where Are Cells Produced?

Staff at Dana-Farber's Connell and O’Reilly Families Cell Manipulation Core Facility play a key role in delivering the complex components needed for immunotherapy such as CAR T-cell therapy.

For some cellular therapy products – especially in early-phase clinical trials – our on-site Connell and O'Reilly Families Cell Manipulation Core Facility (CMCF) performs the primary cell manufacturing of genetically engineered products. 

For other cellular therapy products, cells are primarily manufactured at an outside commercial facility and the CMCF oversees the process of collecting the cells, shipment to the offsite commercial facility, return of the processed cells, and release for patient treatment.