What is CAR T-cell therapy?
CAR T-cell therapy is a type of cancer treatment. It helps the body’s defense system, called the “immune system,” get better at destroying cancer cells. You might also hear your St. Jude team call it “immunotherapy” (say IM-you-no-THER-uh-pee) or cellular therapy.
What does CAR T stand for?
The letters in CAR stand for chimeric antigen receptor. The T stands for T cell.
How CAR T-cell therapy works
You need to understand how your body’s immune system works to understand CAR T-cell therapy. First, the immune system includes several types of cells. They work together to fight infection and disease. One type, called a T cell, has connectors called “receptors” on its surface. These help them find specific areas called markers on the outside of other cells. If they find a marker that looks different, the T cell thinks that cell is abnormal.
Healthy T cells travel through the body, looking for abnormal cells. If they find one, they attach to it and destroy it. Sometimes these abnormal cells are cancer cells. However, sometimes T cells do not think a cancer cell is abnormal, so they don’t kill it. Getting cancer means some abnormal cells escaped the T cells.
CAR T-cell therapy makes T cells better at finding and killing cancer cells. Researchers developed CAR T-cell therapy by finding the abnormal markers on specific types of cancer cells. Then they developed a way to change how T cells attach to these abnormal markers. They did this by adding the CAR to the T cell. This makes CAR T cells. Once CAR T cells are made, they can find those specific types of cancer cells and kill them. This treatment is called CAR T-cell therapy.
For CAR T-cell therapy to work, the cancer must have an abnormal marker the CAR T-cell can find. So far, researchers have changed T cells to treat some types of cancer, but not all of them. Your doctor can tell you if CAR T-cell therapy is an option for your child’s type of cancer.
Where CAR T-cell therapy comes from
Collecting white blood cells
The T cells for CAR T-cell therapy come from your child or another person called a donor. The St. Jude team collects them in a procedure called “apheresis,” which means collecting white blood cells. T cells are a type of white blood cell. We take blood from your child or the donor, remove white blood cells, and put the rest of the blood back.
Making CAR T cells takes a certain number of white blood cells. Sometimes, we cannot get enough white blood cells to make the CAR T cells. Several different things can cause this, and we cannot control it.
Making CAR T cells
The collected T cells go to a lab or other facility to be changed. Workers add the new receptors, called chimeric antigen receptors or CAR, to the T cells. Then the CAR T cells can recognize markers on specific types of cancer cells. Making a normal T cell into a CAR T cell takes 2 or 3 weeks. Researchers call this process “manufacturing” the cells.
Getting treatment while you wait for CAR T cells
Your child might have other treatments, such as chemotherapy, while they wait for their CAR T cells to be made. Sometimes, making the CAR T cells (manufacturing) does not work. This is not your child’s fault or the donor’s fault if you had a donor.
CAR T-cell therapy and other treatments
Your child might have CAR T-cell therapy by itself or with other treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or a stem cell transplant.
CAR T-cell is new. How can I get it for my child?
CAR T-cell therapy is only available for some types of cancer. Not all hospitals give CAR T-cell therapy. Your child might get CAR T-cell therapy in a clinical trial. Some CAR T-cell treatments are also available for regular treatment.
If you have questions about CAR T-cell therapy, please ask your child’s doctor or nurse. We are always happy to talk with you about your child’s treatment.
This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.
St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.
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