St Jude Children’s Research Hospital

CAR T-cell therapy has generated excitement throughout the medical community as a treatment for many types of cancer. But what is this treatment and how does it work?

Your immune system is really powerful. It is constantly surveying your body, looking for intruders. When the immune system sees something that looks different, it says, “You don’t belong here.” It then attacks the interloper and clears it from the body. This is what happens with infections all of the time.

When you get cancer, your immune system, for whatever reason, wasn’t able to recognize the cancer cell as different and therefore could not kill it. CAR T-cell therapy seeks to help the immune system find tumor cells more efficiently, while still using the immune system’s power to destroy the abnormal cells.

What is a CAR?

CAR stands for chimeric antigen receptor. This receptor is designed to target a specific molecule that is present on the surface of a cancer cell.

In CAR T-cell therapy, doctors first remove T cells from a person’s blood. The immune cells are then engineered in a lab so that each T cell has a CAR on its surface, making it into a CAR T cell. Once the transformed CAR T cells are infused into the patient, the cells roam around the body looking for their specific target. (In our SJCAR19 clinical trial, that target is the CD19 molecule.) When they find the intended target, the engineered immune cells bind to the cancer cell and kill it.

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