It’s like ants at a picnic, but in a good way

May 29, 2012 | by City of Hope Staff

Imagine you’re in the park with a packed basket full of delicious food, especially that 3-tiered red velvet cake serenading you like a siren. It might seem hard to believe, but for purposes of this analogy, it’s actually a brain tumor. And somehow it’s wedged in between the fruit salad and the egg salad sandwiches. You can’t get to it without damaging the important stuff around it.

Hungry? Let’s get to the point of this picnic metaphor.

Image of ants carrying picnic awayCity of Hope recently was granted a $5.2 million research award by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to support development of a therapy to attack brain tumors. This T cell-based immunotherapy would redirect a patient’s immune system to fight glioma stem cells.

Glioma is a type of brain tumor that can be difficult to treat and often returns after therapy. Currently, less than 20 percent of patients with malignant gliomas are living five years after their diagnosis. This poor prognosis is mostly because of cancer stem cells. These malignant cells are similar to normal stem cells in that they can reproduce indefinitely. They’re also highly resistant to chemotherapy and radiation therapy, so they can stick around and start new tumors after a patient undergoes treatment.

CIRM’s grant supports a potential new therapy that engineers T cells to go after several proteins linked to glioma cells. Phase I trials already are under way at City of Hope for T-cell therapies using other proteins.

Now back to that picnic. Think of engineered T cells as an army of ants. They’re drawn specifically to red velvet cake, leaving the rest of the basket alone. The ants tear apart the cake and haul it away.

In another picnic basket, ants might be targeted to attack a hoagie — a pancreatic tumor. Or maybe they go for the caprese salad — in this case, breast cancer. Different armies of T cells could swarm to specific targets as needed.

In the end, the cake, sandwich or salad might be gone, but the picnic would go on.


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