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A diagram of a scaffold loaded with CAR T cells and “microspheres” containing nutrients to help the cells multiply and then leave the scaffold to go attack cancer cells. (Cognition Studio Image via Fred Hutch)

Immunotherapy — treatments that harness the body’s immune system to fight cancer — have seen promising results in blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma.

But those same treatments have proven difficult to adapt for the much more common solid tumors, where cancer cells are clumped together in an environment that is toxic to the immune system.

Scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center are hoping to create both literal and metaphorical inroads to deliver immunotherapies to solid tumors with a new technology, and a study of the tech and published Monday found that it successfully shrank tumors in a mouse model.

Fred Hutch researcher and the lead developer of the CAR T cell scaffolds, Dr. Matthias Stephan. (Fred Hutch Photo / Robert Hood)

Here’s how it works: Fred Hutch researchers, led by Dr. Matthias Stephan, have developed a “scaffold” designed to house T cells that have been genetically altered to attack cancer cells, called CAR T cells.

“The key to our scaffold is that it’s not just a structure,” Stephan said in a press release. “The components we’ve engineered into these scaffolds include an optimal mix of stimulating factors and other ingredients that allow the T cells to survive and proliferate and to maintain a sustained fight against cancerous cells.”

In the study, researchers from Fred Hutch, MIT and the Unviersity of Washington loaded the sticky, biodegradable scaffold with CAR T cells and “microspheres” of other helpful compounds, then placed them in the tumors of mice.

Tumors are very good at killing T cells, so the scaffold provided an important home base for them to get nutrients and reproduce as they went to work killing the cancerous cells around them.

The study found that, in the majority of cases, the scaffolds turned the tide of the cancer’s progression, either stalling it or making the tumor shrink.

Now the researchers are looking for an industry partner to keep developing the technology and eventually conduct clinical trials to get it approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Commercializing biotechnology research has been a huge stumbling block for Seattle’s health industry in the past.

But if the tech is successful, Stephan says it could be an important tool in fighting cancer. Even if the scaffold can’t completely kill a patient’s tumor, it could shrink inoperable tumors enough to let surgeons remove them or be used to help clean up any leftover cancer cells after surgeries.

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