The immune system relies on T cells to attack abnormalities that sneak into the body. Each invader triggers only one type of T cell, like a stubborn bolt that requires a particular wrench to remove it. But not every body has the right set of wrenches to handle certain infiltrators—including melanoma. About 20 years ago, Michael Nishimura, then with the National Institutes of Health, identified the T cell that responds to melanoma and cloned those genes. But that raised another question—how do you get the effective genes out of the lab and into a patient’s immune system? 

Nishimura, now director of the cancer immunotherapeutics program at Loyola’s Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, figured out how to genetically modify a patient’s T cells with the cloned material so they’re able to better fight melanoma. After doctors withdraw a batch of the cells, researchers in a lab insert the cloned genes. The turbocharged T cells, now primed to recognize and attack melanoma, are then injected back into the patient’s bloodstream. 

Nishimura is leading the treatment’s first clinical trial in the Midwest, focusing on patients whose cancer has stopped responding to other therapies. So far, results have been mixed. (One out of the five patients participating in the ultraexperimental trial has improved.) But Nishimura sees promise, even in this early stage: The study has enabled him to monitor how engineered and nonengineered cells behave differently, which will then help him tweak future T cells to get exactly the result he wants. 

His team is also prepping for a similar trial targeting kidney cancer, with an eye toward diseases like hepatitis associated with liver cancer or lymphoma. “We’ve learned a lot about what happens when you put cells back in a human body,” Nishimura says—namely, that they can be reprogrammed into microscopic cancer killers.