Star Wars: Attack of the T Cells, A New Hope for Leukemia Treatment


This week, a new technique to fight chronic lymphoid leukemia (CLL) has shown lots of promise.

The study has received an enormous amount of publicity with some touting it as “amazing,” and the “greatest breakthrough in a decade.” But how does this new technique work and what does it mean for cancer patients and their loved ones right now?

Currently, chronic lymphoid leukemia is typically treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and/or a bone marrow transplant.

The new technique, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, is a manipulation of the body’s own immune defenses. But when you examine it more closely, it’s very similar to something we already know and understand, Star Wars.

Just stay with me… Why did I choose a science fiction pop culture reference to explain a cancer treatment?

Because let’s face it, most of us know more about the inner-workings of the Galactic Empire than we do the biology of the human immune system. And this research is too big to get lost in the translation of medical jargon.

In this study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania were able to test and prove a theory about removing T cells from patients with leukemia, arming them with leukemia-fighting weapons, and inserting them back into the body to bolster the immune system and fight a specific ailment—in this case, CLL.

It is only in the first phase of testing, but so far has shown promise in three patients.

Now what in the world does this have to do with Star Wars, you ask? Let’s go back to Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones when the Jedi Knights and the clone army battle the Separatists and droid army, led by the evil Count Dooku, also known as Darth Tyranus.

We all have white blood cells called T cells in our blood that are our bodies’ fighters. They make up part of our immune system. Think of them as soldiers—or clone troopers in Episode II—in the war against cancer. However, T cells have a weakness.

They have a tough time recognizing the enemy, cancer cells—or in the Episode II analogy, the droid army.

Human cancer cells actually use evasion strategies to fool our immune system, just like Jedi Knights use mind tricks to control their enemies. Without extra support, T cells are rendered helpless.

The approach reported yesterday, removed the clone troopers from the field and equipped them with new ammunition, night-vision goggles, a GPS, and the ability to call for reinforcements quickly and often.

When the T cells were reintroduced into the bodies of these patients with leukemia, they were effective in fighting against the cancer.

In Episode II, Lama Su described the clone troopers to Obi-Wan this way: “They are totally obedient, taking any order without question. We modified their genetic structure to make them less independent than their original host.”

Something similar holds true for these modified T cells. They are programmed to attack a specific enemy, whereas the original cell wouldn’t have a fighting chance on its own.

The T cells return to the body to fight the cancer just like in Episode II, when Yoda flies in with the clone army just as Count Dooku and the droid army were about to execute Anakin, Obi-Wan and Padme.

Dr. Joseph Fay, Director of Immunological Therapy for Cancer at the Baylor Institute for Immunology Research and the Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center at Dallas, explains what this means for the future of cancer treatment research in the video below.

Researchers around the country are also studying techniques just like this one.

As Dr. Fay explained, we’ve had success with similar methods against melanoma at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas and the Baylor Institute for Immunology Research (BIIR).

You can also watch animation of how the dendritic cell vaccine works inside the body.

Instead of manipulating T cells, or clone troopers, we’re going straight to the source, the dendritic cell, known as the instructor of the immune system.

In the Episode II analogy, now dendritic cells are the Jedi Knights, like Obi-Wan and Anakin, gathering intelligence and delivering the battle plans to the clone troopers.

Outside of the Star Wars universe, CBS 11 had Alan Miller, M.D., and medical director of the Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center at Dallas, explain this research in their recent coverage of the study, which shared the story of a local leukemia survivor.

While the new technique to fight chronic lymphoid leukemia isn’t mainstream yet, it is a very significant step in the war on cancer, one that is so promising it’s being studied all over the world.

So now we hope you have a better understanding of how this new treatment technique works. Or did I lose you at Galactic Empire?

About the author

Julie Smith
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Julie is the Director of Media Relations for Baylor Scott & White Health. A native of South Louisiana and an LSU graduate, she loves meeting Baylor patients and helping them to tell their stories.

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Star Wars: Attack of the T Cells, A New Hope for Leukemia Treatment