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How Scientists Built a ‘Living Drug’ to Beat Cancer

Emily Whitehead would be the world’s first kid to try an experimental cancer therapy, called CAR-T. Researchers were offering to reprogram her immune cells into a clone army of cancer-targeting serial killers.

A CAR-T CELL is a reengineered T cell that has been removed from the cancer patient, tweaked in the lab to recognize that patient’s cancer, and then injected back into the patient. Because each of these reengineered cells is a monstrous robocop-like assemblage of immune cell parts, researchers had given their invention the equally monstrous name of “Chimeric Antigen Receptor T cell.”

[…]Results from a phase I study targeting this antigen with CAR-T, unveiled at the end of April, suggested promise; Michel Sadelain was lead author of the study supported by the Parker Institute of Cancer Immunotherapy, founded by Napster legend Sean Parker. The technology has since been licensed to Atara Biotherapeutics for development and, hopefully, a new breakthrough drug that widens the circle of cancer immunotherapy responders.

[…]For 100 years most scientists were dead certain that the immune system couldn’t target cancer. And they were dead wrong. The immunotherapy breakthrough against cancer is bigger than just CAR-T or any single cancer therapy or drug; the real breakthrough is in our scientific understanding of the disease and ourselves and the validation of cancer immunotherapy as the most likely road to progress—and perhaps a cure.

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