Dr. Christian Hinrichs (R), an investigator at the National Cancer Institute in immunotherapy for HPV+ cancers, shows patient Fred Janick, a survivor of metastatic cancer, the difference between his CT scan showing cancerous tumors (R) and a clean scan after treatment (L), after a day of medical exams showing no recurrence of cancer, at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, February 8, 2018.
Experimental trials are ongoing at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, a US government-funded research hospital where doctors are trying to partially replace patients’ immune systems with T-cells that would specifically attack cancers caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection. A person’s T-cells will naturally try to kill off any invader, including cancer, but usually fall short because tumors can mutate, hide, or simply overpower the immune system.
Immunotherapies that have seen widespread success, such as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR-T) cell therapies, mainly target blood cancers like lymphoma, myeloma and leukemia, which have a tumor antigen — like a flag or a signal — on the surface of the cells so it is easy for immune cells to find and target the harmful cells. But many common cancers lack this clear, surface signal. Hinrichs’ approach focuses on HPV tumors because they contain viral antigens that the immune system can easily recognize.
/ AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)