Cancer remains the second-leading cause of death in the United States. This year, an estimated 1.7 million new cases will be diagnosed, with nearly 610,000 people expected to die from the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Fortunately, several recent cancer treatments show considerable promise. Among them is Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T cell therapy, which the American Society of Clinical Oncology recently named the "2018 Advance of the Year."

Three USC Viterbi School of Engineering researchers Assistant Professor Stacey Finley, Professor Pin Wang, and Assistant Professor Nick Graham have just published a paper in "Biophysical Journal" that sheds light on how this new treatment works, information that could one day result in better cancer therapies with fewer side effects.

"We are trying to dig into the molecular mechanisms," said Graham, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science. "By understanding how the CAR T cells work, we could try to design better ones."

When the immune system functions normally, immune cells move around the body and look for pathogens that don't belong and kill them. However, cancer cells can mask themselves, making it harder for the good cells, such as T cells, to kill them.

CAR T cell therapies

Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first CAR T cell therapy for the treatment of some people with advanced leukemia and a form of lymphoma, both blood cancers. Early results have shown great promise.

However, in early tests, the CAR-T cell therapies have so far proven much less effective against breast, lung, prostate and other solid-tumor cancers. Additionally, some people undergoing CAR T cell therapy have experienced significant side effects; a few have even died.

The trio of USC researchers hopes their work will greatly improve CAR T cell therapies by uncovering the complicated process by which CARs activate cancer-fighting cells.

Specifically, they are examining a process called phosphorylation, which is a chemical reaction that occurs when the CAR receptor bumps up against a cancer cell and sends a signal to the T cell to attack the bad cells.

"I think what is most exciting is that we're really adding to the field an understanding of which sites on the CAR are becoming phosphorylated, how quickly that happens and the amount of phosphorylation of each site," said Finley, the Gordon S. Marshall Early Career Chair and assistant professor of biomedical engineering.