Adoptive Cell Transfer Therapy

Cancer specialists can treat many types of cancer, including melanoma, with medications that stimulate the body’s own immune system. This type of treatment, known as immunotherapy, is systemic, which means that the treatment travels to all parts of your body.

As a systemic cancer treatment, immunotherapy is effective in fighting advanced and metastatic cancer (cancer that has spread from the original tumor to other parts of the body). Adoptive cell transfer therapy delivers immune cells to destroy cancer cells. Often the kind of immune cell that is transferred is a T-cell.  This is a very potent immune cell that has the ability to kill cancer cells on contact.

Learn more about how immunotherapy works.

What is Adoptive Cell Transfer Therapy?

Adoptive cell transfer therapy, or ACT, includes a number of different types of immunotherapy treatments.  They all use immune cells that are grown in the lab to large numbers followed by administering them to the body to fight the cancer.  Sometimes, immune cells that naturally recognize melanoma are used, while other times they are modified to make them recognize and kill the melanoma cells. There are several types of ACT:

  • TIL (tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes): This is when T-cells are grown from the tumor itself
  • Endogenous T-cell therapy: This is when tumor-specific T-cells are grown from the blood
  • CAR T: This is when a chimeric antibody/T-cell receptor gene is put into peripheral T-cells
  • TCR transduced T-cells: This is when a T-cell receptor gene engineered to recognize tumor is put into peripheral T-cells

TIL therapy is a type of immunotherapy pioneered at the U.S. National Cancer Institute. It is still in research and has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That means you can receive this treatment only by participating in a clinical trial. 

Among ACT for melanoma, TIL therapy is most common. As of October 2017, there were 24 TIL clinical trials recruiting melanoma patients compared to 1 CAR-T clinical trial.

Read more about melanoma clinical trials.

How Does Adoptive Cell Transfer Therapy Work?

ACT with TIL increases the number of cancer-fighting cells in your immune system and may make them stronger.

In the procedure:

  • Physicians isolate a specific type of white blood cell called T-cells from the surgically removed melanoma tumor.
  • Physicians may modify the cells in a laboratory to increase their potency against the cancer by enriching for the most active cells. The T-cells are also ‘expanded’ to increase their number.
  • The patient will receive chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy to increase the chance that the T-cells will grow vigorously once back in the body.
  • The patient receives the lab-grown cells through an infusion.

Researchers believe that because the TIL therapy uses systemic administration of a large number of immune cells, they may shrink or kill tumors throughout the body.

Which Patients Benefit from Adoptive Cell Transfer Therapy?

Patients with advanced melanoma may receive ACT in a clinical trial. The goal is for the newly lab-grown immune cells to target and kill any residual melanoma cells, which prevents them from replicating (reproducing themselves) and spreading.

How Is Adoptive Cell Transfer Therapy Given?

Patients receive ACT as an intravenous infusion (into a blood vein). The dosages and time frame for treatment vary depending on the ACT method being used and likely require hospitalization.

What Are the Goals of Adoptive Cell Transfer Therapy?

Researchers are working to show that ACT can:

  • Control the reproduction and spread of melanoma cells
  • Shrink recurring and metastatic melanoma tumors

Melanoma treatments, like ACT, have side effects, which can sometimes be serious. Patients should talk with their physician to learn more about the side effects of ACT and other melanoma treatment options.

What Should I Ask My Doctor About Adoptive Cell Transfer Therapy?

If you are interested in learning more about ACT in clinical trials, here are some questions you should ask your physicians:

  • Am I eligible for ACT?
  • What is your experience with ACT?
  • Is ACT a good option for my melanoma treatment?
  • Is there an alternative to ACT for me?
  • How successful has ACT been for patients like me?
  • What are the side effects of ACT?
  • Are there any clinical trials for ACT that I can join?
  • What other treatments are FDA-approved for treating advanced melanoma?
  • What are the risks and benefits of the available treatment options?
  • What are the goals for my treatment?

Latest Treatments for Advanced Melanoma

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Melanoma Research

Since its founding in 2007, the Melanoma Research Alliance has awarded $88 million to research aimed at better preventing, diagnosing and treating melanoma. Learn more about our funded research.

Last reviewed: November 2017

Reviewers: Patrick Hwu, Kristen Mueller, Louise Perkins

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