“Immune cells are good at recognizing things that are really different,” explains Geisel immunologist Charles Sentman, PhD. “But tumors are basically normal cells that grow too much, so they don’t look that different to our immune system.” To solve this problem, Sentman and his collaborators at the Geisel School of Medicine and Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering have designed a new line of immune cells—chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR-T cells)—that attack tumor cells. While many institutions and companies are developing CAR-T cells for specific cancers, Sentman’s target 80–90% of all types of tumor cells. His first line of CAR-T cells are currently in clinical trials for seven different kinds of cancer.
“Dartmouth has been great about helping us partner with industry to move this discovery forward,” says Sentman, who spent three years in the pharmaceutical industry in Sweden before joining Geisel. “That’s essential if the discoveries are ever going to benefit patients.”
In fact, discoveries made by Dartmouth medical school scientists were essential to the success of several immunotherapies that are dramatically improving survival rates for once fatal cancers. Immunologists at Geisel and their collaborators at Thayer are now working to improve CAR-T cell technology and other immunotherapies, and to better predict which treatments will benefit which patients.
“My lab is part of an effort involving 10 to 12 laboratories across Dartmouth to combine immunology, computer science, and protein engineering to create a synthetic model of the immune system,” says Sentman. “We will use these synthetic models to test drug combinations quickly and to create designer immune cells that are more effective and less toxic for patients.”
With such innovations, Dartmouth scientists are again taking the next leap forward in treating cancers and autoimmune diseases.
“If you look at the patents and innovations that have come out of Dartmouth, we’re actually punching well above our weight, and that makes it a very exciting place to be.”
—Charles Sentman, PhD, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology