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NEW ORLEANS — For years, Kristin Anderson has been trying to push immunotherapy to work in ovarian cancer, only to see immune tool after tool fail to crack the tumors. But now, Anderson has new data from a preliminary approach that some experts called both thought-provoking and a little controversial: a combination of three immune checkpoint inhibitors and a batch of engineered T cells.

The work started off with a simple question, said Anderson, a postdoctoral scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center: Is it possible to engineer T cells to attack ovarian tumors? Anderson started by modifying T cells to carry a receptor that would recognize mesothelin — a protein common in several cancer types including ovarian. That way, these modified immune cells would be more likely to infiltrate the tumors and, hopefully, start cleaning up the cancer.


But then, Anderson ran into a classic problem in cell therapy — cancers fight back. Tumors often flood the area around themselves with inhibitory molecules that serve as natural brakes for the immune system. In healthy tissue, these molecules prevent T cells from going too far and accidentally causing damage to the body, but tumors can overload T cells with these signals and cause them to stop working altogether.

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