Tackling treatment toxicity

Christopher PennellChristopher Pennell, Ph.D., part of the U’s laboratory medicine and pathology faculty, is trying to train the body’s natural defense system to attack cancerous cells.

Pennell is studying a breakthrough treatment called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) therapy. It involves isolating the patient’s white blood cells, reprogramming them to recognize cancerous cells in the blood, and then injecting them back into the patient to kill those cells.

Although CAR therapy has proved effective for patients with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, it can also have life-threatening side effects.

“We don’t know why CAR therapy has these effects on some patients and not others,” he says. “We can’t predict or prevent it.”

Support from Minnesota Masonic Charities is allowing Pennell and his team to study the toxicity problem.

He says their biggest accomplishment so far is the development of a mouse model that replicates CAR therapy’s antitumor effects and toxicities. “Because we designed our mice to have human components, the most promising new CARs eventually may be able to go directly to patients without further modifications.”

“Masonic support provides me with the freedom to pursue outside-of-the-box approaches that have paid off.”

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