9 things to know about CAR T-cell therapy

CAR T-cell therapy is a new type of cancer treatment offered at MD Anderson through clinical trials and FDA-approved standard of care cell therapy products. But what exactly is CAR T-cell therapy? And who should consider it? We spoke with Sattva Neelapu, M.D., to learn more. Here’s what he had to say. Let’s start with the basics. What is CAR T-cell therapy, and how does it work? CAR T-cell therapy is a type of immunotherapy called adoptive cell therapy. Doctors extract T cells (a type of white blood cell) from the patient’s blood and then add an artificial receptor (called a “chimeric antigen receptor”) to their surface. The receptor functions as a type of “heat-seeking missile,” enabling the modified cells to produce chemicals that kill cancer. And once we infuse them back into a patient’s body through an IV, they begin multiplying and attacking tumor cells. CAR T-cell therapy can cause some unusual side effects. Tell me about them. The most common side effect of CAR T-cell therapy is called cytokine release syndrome, or CRS. It’s also known as a “cytokine storm.” About 70-90% of patients experience it, but it’s very short-term and only lasts about five to seven days. Most patients describe it as having a severe case of the flu, with high fever, fatigue and body aches. It usually starts around the second or third day after the infusion. It happens because the T cells have been multiplying and attacking the cancer, causing an immune response in the body. There’s a very effective remedy for CRS now called tocilizumab, which reverses this side effect fairly quickly. The medicine...