Immunotherapy for cancer is an exciting topic, as it involves stimulating a patient’s own immune system to fight the malignancy. Although the concept has been around for 100 years,Wilmot scientists such as Minsoo Kim are making it more relevant today.
Kim is using a process called optogenetics to try to improve the response rates for which range from about 30 percent to 70 percent. He wants to know why immunotherapy doesn’t work 100 percent of the time.
Three underlying issues challenge immunotherapy: First, cancer cells are smart and evasive, often hiding from the immune system’s T-cells, the cells that typically attack the disease. Second, tumors suppress the immune system, presenting another challenge for the super-fighting T-cells once they’ve located a tumor. Third, immunotherapy often comes with side effects.
Kim is studying light or optics as a tool to bypass all three obstacles.
All healthy T-cells contain molecules with toxins that kill cancer. To make sure the toxins know where to find their target, Kim’s lab has engineered T-cells that respond to light. By implanting a light source — an LED chip that his research lab also invented — into the body of a mouse, he’s demonstrated that light can guide the T-cells to the cancer cells. Once there, the light source also boosts the toxic, biological reaction within the T-cells, better positioning them to wipe out cancer. And finally, he’s invented a molecular safety switch (also based on light) that causes T-cells to self-destruct when their job is done, preventing severe side effects resulting from the immune system remaining in overdrive.
“It’s like we’re sending T-cells on a spy mission and guiding them throughout the process,” Kim says. “We’re very encouraged that our work can be applied to patients in the future.”