Professor John Anderson is developing a pioneering approach to treat life-threatening brain tumours. It involves modifying a child’s own immune cells, creating superpowered ‘CAR-T’ cells programmed to hunt down and kill cancer.
Why this research is vital
For some cancers, survival rates are now 90%, but for harder-to-treat cancers, just five out of 10 children survive. Some of the most life-threatening childhood cancers are solid tumours that grow in nerve tissue (neuroblastoma), the brain and spinal cord (midline gliomas) and soft tissue (rhabdoid tumours and sarcoma). They are difficult to treat and, particularly for children whose cancer returns after initial treatment, the outlook is very poor.
CAR-T cells Recent major breakthroughs in treating adult tumours have focused on ‘taking the brakes off’ the immune system’s natural defensive response against cancer. But in most childhood cases, the immune system does not respond to cancer at all. An alternative approach is desperately needed.
Professor John Anderson’s research group is developing a pioneering approach that involves modifying a child’s own immune cells, creating CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) cells that are programmed to hunt down and kill cancer.
CAR-T cells are already being used to treat blood cancers like leukaemia, and now Professor Anderson’s team want to harness their potential to tackle solid tumours, especially brain tumours.
A vital first step in creating CAR-T cells for a particular type of cancer is identifying a unique marker present on the surface of the cancer cells. CAR-T cells are then engineered to recognise that unique marker, ensuring that they only target dangerous cells and not other, healthy cells in the body.
Professor Anderson’s team have identified such a marker present across at least four different types of life-threatening solid tumours in children (neuroblastoma, midline gliomas, rhabdoid tumours and sarcoma). This means that a single CAR-T therapy could potentially be used to treat at least four different types of cancer.
In this project the team will grow a ‘library’ of CAR-T cells designed to target these cancers in children and identify the cells likely to be most effective at destroying cancer.
Impact of this project
By the end of this project, the team hope to begin applying for funding to test their CAR-T therapy in a clinical trial. This could help at least 100 children each year in the UK who relapse and have little or no treatment options for their tumours, giving them the chance to benefit from a promising new therapy. The treatment could also potentially benefit children with other forms of cancer.
The team will work on a new technique to identify the most effective CAR-T cells from a library of thousands. This technique could help other researchers select the best CAR-T cells for other types of childhood and adult cancers.
This project is jointly funded by Sparks and charity partner Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity through their national research funding call.