What is CAR T-Cell Therapy for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma?

Learn the basics of this immunotherapy treatment being used to treat certain types of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Woman labeling a blood sample

Immunotherapy is a treatment approach for cancer that works by improving the immune system’s ability to locate and destroy cancer cells in the body.

Immunotherapies are used to treat a number of different types of cancer, including some types of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Sometimes abbreviated at NHL, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is one of the more common forms of cancer in the United States. NHL is a blood cancer that begins in the lymphocytes, white blood cells that are part of the immune system. There are two main types of lymphocytes, B-cells and T-cells and lymphoma can begin in either type (lymphoma can also begin in a third type of lymphocyte, called NK cells, but this type of lymphoma is rare).

There are over 80 different types of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and there are several different types of immunotherapy treatments that are used to treat certain types of NHL.

Some immunotherapies utilize monoclonal antibodies—lab-made versions of antibodies made in the body—which are added to the immune system, where they work to destroy cancer cells and stop the growth and spread of cancer. Others work by boosting the function of specific factors in the immune system. These treatments can be used in tandem with certain chemotherapy drugs, or can be used on their own when a cancer stops responding to treatment.

CAR T-cell therapy

Chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy, referred to as CAR T-cell therapy, is another type of immunotherapy. Before explaining how this therapy works, it helps to understand a few key terms:

  • T-cells. As mentioned above, T-cells are a type of lymphocyte, or white blood cell. Some T-cells help in the production of antibodies while others kill cells that are infected with viruses or have become cancerous.
  • Receptor. A receptor is protein molecule that is part of a cell’s structure. Specific receptors bind with specific substances. Receptors are important in targeted cancer treatments because they allow medicines to find and attach to cancer cells.
  • Chimeric antigen receptor (or CAR) is a laboratory-made receptor that binds with specific proteins found on cancer cells.

When a patient is going to receive CAR T-cell therapy, he or she will have a blood sample taken. That sample will be sent to a lab where T-cells are extracted from the blood. CAR is then added to those T-cells, which programs the cells to specifically attach to cancer cells. A large quantity of these modified T-cells are grown in the lab, and then administered to the patient through an infusion.

Available CAR T-cell therapies

In August and October of 2017, two CAR T-cell therapies were approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These are the first two CAR T-cell therapies to be available to patients in the United States. The first was approved for the treatment of certain types of leukemia (another type of blood cancer). The second was approved for the treatment of certain types of large B-cell lymphomas. Many more CAR T-cell therapies are currently being developed or tested in clinical trials.

As is the case when treating any type of cancer, the choice of what treatment or treatments to use depends on numerous factors about both the patient and the cancer.

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