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Stanford University School of Medicine

An inside look at immune cells might eventually shorten wait times for cancer patients

WaitingAnyone who has had an encounter with cancer knows about waiting.

You have to wait for test results, wait for appointments and wait to see if a particular treatment is working. A treatment that works for some patients is ineffective for others. Months can go by while the patient and the medical team wait until they can tell if tumors are shrinking or growing.

But what if there was a way to find out sooner?

In the case of immunotherapy, in which the patient’s own immune cells are tweaked so they have an improved ability to recognize and attack the cancer, it would be great to be able to actually see what those immune cells are doing. Are the immune cells, called T cells, actually finding the cancer? And if so, what do the T cells do when they get there?

A new visualization technique allows researchers to watch T cells to see where they go in the body and how they fair. A paper describing the new technique, called “reporter gene imaging,” appeared in Science Translational Medicine this week. I described the work in a press release:

'We can now watch anywhere in your body where those T cells may be,' said senior author Sanjiv “Sam” Gambhir, MD, PhD, professor and chair of radiology at Stanford, who holds the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professorship in Cancer Research.

'This is the first demonstration in humans of actually noninvasively imaging the immune system in action with reporter gene technology. It’s never been done before in a living human, and without the need to remove any tissue.'

The technique was tested in patients with a deadly brain cancer called glioblastoma, but reporter gene imaging in T cells could be used in any cancer being treated with immunotherapy.

Being able to see what the T cells are doing is useful to clinicians who don’t want to wait so long to see if a treatment is working and useful to researchers trying to understand why a treatment is working or not working. In the long run, it means shorter waits and better treatments.

Previously: Exploring the promise and challenges of cancer immunotherapy“We’re feeling the ground shaking under our feet”: Stanford oncologist talks cancer immunotherapyImmunotherapy: New hope in treating cancer
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