Multiplying the Army of Cancer-Fighting Immune Cells

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Allison Betof Warner uses a pipette in the lab

Physician-scientist Allison Betof Warner is leading a trial of a new immunotherapy for melanoma that has spread to the brain.

Using patients’ own immune systems to fight cancer has been one of the most exciting advances in cancer treatment over the past decade. Now, a new immunotherapy could take this approach to the next level.

The treatment, called tumor infiltrating lymphocyte (TIL) therapy, harnesses and expands the power of immune cells that have already been fighting the cancer. The patient’s immune cells are removed from their tumor after surgery, given a treatment that makes them multiply, and then infused back into the body where they can seek out and destroy remaining metastases anywhere in the body.

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The concept of TIL therapy is not new, but it’s only been feasible in the past few years, thanks to advances in biotechnology that allow immune cells that are harvested from tumors to be grown outside the body in large numbers.

Investigators at Memorial Sloan Kettering are conducting clinical trials for TIL therapy, which is being considered for approval by the FDA later in 2021.

Expanding Potential Benefits to More Patients

Physician-scientist Allison Betof Warner is leading the development of TIL therapy for metastatic melanoma at MSK, including an upcoming study that will be the only trial to specifically evaluate this approach in melanoma that has spread to the brain. “When melanoma spreads, it often goes to the brain, but patients with brain metastases are usually disqualified from participating in clinical trials of new treatments,” she says. “To understand all of the potential benefits of TIL therapy, it’s important to include these patients in our studies.”

Medical oncologist Adam Schoenfeld is leading another trial for TIL therapy at MSK, which includes patients with several types of metastatic disease, including lung and head and neck cancers and melanoma.

“We are in early-phase trials in lung cancer, but I believe this treatment could be a potential breakthrough for patients — especially those who have disease that’s resistant to immunotherapy — when treatment options can be limited,” Dr. Schoenfeld says. “While there are several different steps required for TIL therapy, which can be challenging for patients to go through at times, the side effects tend to be short-lived, and after that there is a real possibility that they will have their disease controlled for a long time.”

MSK News Summer 2021
This special issue focuses on metastasis: What's available now — and on the horizon — for patients like Ilene Thompson facing advanced disease. Read about this important work in our summer issue.