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Strength in numbers: Send in the reinforcements

Annual Report - Winter 2014

By Scott Merville

When immune system T cells that can’t kill a patient’s cancer get a shot at those same tumor cells in the lab, it’s another story altogether.

“T cells try to attack, but tumors secrete things to inhibit immune response and protect themselves,” says Chantale Bernatchez, Ph.D., assistant professor in Melanoma Medical Oncology. “Remove the tumor and T cells from that suppressive environment, and you can grow lots of T cells.”

Chantale Bernatchez, Ph.D.
Photographer: John Everett

Indeed, three to five weeks after a patient’s tumor sample with infiltrating T cells is put in culture, there’s nothing left but T cells. After an additional two weeks of rapid expansion, the amassed T cells are ready to go back into the patient — this time with a much better shot at success.

“Infusing 50 billion cells is good; 100 billion is better,” Bernatchez says.

She operates the Tumor Infiltrating Lymphocyte (TIL) Laboratory in Melanoma Medical Oncology, where T cells, white blood-cells that attack invaders such as viruses and tumors, are grown for a clinical trial on metastatic melanoma.

So far, 79 patients have been treated in three arms of the trial, with about half of them responding well. Among the latter is Michael Gunter (see his story on page 33), who came to the lab last year to thank and support the people who grew his T cells.

“Michael’s visit was awesome,” Bernatchez recalls. “Many of our patients would like to see more people get this therapy.”

Laszlo Radvanyi, Ph.D., professor in Melanoma Medical Oncology and TIL lab scientific director, Bernatchez and their colleagues are supremely focused on improving and expanding this approach.

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