Cancer Immunotherapy — The UPMC Immune Transplant and Therapy Center
Together, UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh set the course for cancer immunotherapy. Doctors and researchers at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center have long been investigating the link between cancer and the immune system.
This research has allowed us to develop effective immunotherapeutic and life-extending treatments for a wide range of cancers, including:
- Head and neck cancer
- Hematologic cancers
- Lung cancer
At the UPMC Immune Transplant and Therapy Center, we’re extending this research. Our focus is on immunotherapy for treating what we traditionally considered immune non-responsive cancers such as sarcoma, breast cancer, and pancreatic cancer.
Cancer and the Human Immune System
Our immune system protects us from cancer by recognizing and destroying damaged or unhealthy cells. When the immune system fails, the tumor escapes and evades the immune system.
Once inside the body, the tumor can control and disable tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILS) — a type of immune cell that fights cancer.
This interaction with the immune system promotes the development and growth of cancer and can cause the body to resist cancer treatment.
Our goal is to understand why this happens so we can manipulate it allowing us to:
- Stimulate the immune system to recognize the cancer as abnormal and reject it.
- Improve cancer treatment.
Immunotherapy for Cancer Treatment
At UPMC, we’re working to fine-tune the immune system using antibody-based checkpoint inhibitors to leverage the body’s defenses to fight cancer.
We’re also exploring genetically engineered T cells — immune system cells that may help fight cancer — to find and kill solid organ cancers.
Tumor Infiltrating Lymphocytes (TILs)
Tumors are complex structures made up of tumor cells, blood vessels, and connective tissues, as well as the inflammatory and immune cells our bodies release in an attempt to stop tumor growth. These components make up the tumor micro-environment. Our physicians and researchers are studying the tumor micro-environment to analyze what types of cells are present and how those cells behave.
In some cases, cancer can suppress a type of immune cell called tumor infiltrating lymphocytes, or TILs. Our experts are conducting clinical trials to determine the effectiveness of TILs in patients with melanoma, head and neck cancer, and cervical carcinoma by extracting tumor samples, then culturing the TILs in a laboratory so they increase in number. The TILs are then infused back into the patient with the hope that they will destroy the tumor.
Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-Cells
T cells are a type of white blood cell that fight infection and disease. When a T cell recognizes something as a threat – like a cell infected by a virus – it attacks and destroys it. The goal of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy is to enable T cells to identify and destroy cancer cells.
During CAR T-cell therapy, a patient’s own T cells are extracted and genetically modified to express a CAR that recognizes a protein on the surface of cancer cells. Once the T cells are modified, they’re also multiplied to increase in number over two to three weeks. The modified T cells are then infused back into the patient, in the hope that they will identify and kill cancer cells.
At the UPMC Immune Transplant and Therapy Center, we are taking part in industry-sponsored trials using CAR T-cell therapy for patients with relapsed/refractory non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, relapsed or refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and small lymphocytic lymphoma.