New Research Optimizes Body’s Own Immune System to Fight Solid Cancers; First-of-Its-Kind study Shows How Immune Cells Can Be Engineered for Enhanced Migration Through Complex Tumor Microenvironments

A ground-breaking study led by engineering and medical researchers at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities shows how engineered immune cells used in new cancer therapies can overcome physical barriers to allow a patient's own immune system to fight tumors. The research could improve cancer therapies in the future for millions of people worldwide. The research was published online on May 14, 2021 in Nature Communications, a peer-reviewed, open-access, scientific journal published by Nature Research. The article is titled “Engineering T Cells to Enhance 3D Migration Through Structurally and Mechanically Complex Tumor Microenvironments.” Instead of using chemicals or radiation, immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that helps the patient's immune system fight cancer. T cells are a type of white blood cell that are of key importance to the immune system. Cytotoxic T cells are like soldiers who search out and destroy the targeted invader cells. While there has been success in using immunotherapy for some types of cancer in the blood or blood-producing organs, a T cell's job is much more difficult in solid tumors. "The tumor is sort of like an obstacle course, and the T cell has to run the gauntlet to reach the cancer cells," said Paolo Provenzano, PhD, the senior author of the study and a Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor in the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering. "These T cells get into tumors, but they just can't move around well, and they can't go where they need to go before they run out of gas and are exhausted." In this first-of-its-kind study, the researchers are working to engineer the T cells and develop engineering design criteria to mechanically optimize the cells or make them more "fit" to overcome the barriers. If these immune cells can recognize and get to the cancer cells, then they can destroy the tumor. In a fibrous mass of a tumor, the stiffness of the tumor causes immune cells to slow down about two-fold--almost as if they are running in quicksand.
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