Blood stem cells will be removed, manipulated to target melanoma antigen, and reinserted into patients.

The W.M. Keck Foundation awarded a $1.8 million grant to scientists at institutes in Los Angeles to genetically engineer the human immune system to fight melanoma. 

The project reportedly brings together experts in basic science, tumor immunology, molecular imaging, embryonic stem cell biology, gene medicine, and clinical research from University of California Los Angeles, California Institute for Technology, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and University of Southern California.

The team will bolster the immune system through genetic engineering and use PET to observe in real time as the immune system recognizes, attacks, and kills the cancer.

The process would work like a mini stem cell transplant, they explain. The blood stem cells that later differentiate into T lymphocytes would be removed from a patient’s body. They will then be genetically engineered such that they are drawn to a melanoma antigen called MART1 and become melanoma-killing T lymphocytes. A reporter gene that can be traced with PET scanning will also be inserted into the cells, so the researchers can monitor them noninvasively.

The cells will then be returned to the bone marrow, where over the next two or three months they will develop into a genetically-engineered immune system designed to seek out and kill melanoma cells. Using PET, researchers will be able to watch as the immune system develops, goes to the tumor site, and kills the cancer. The investigators expect to launch clinical trials in humans early next year.

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