Reel Science

The Most Unnecessary Action Sequel on Netflix Hints At a Cancer Treatment Breakthrough

CAR T cell immunotherapy is like tiny nanobots fighting cancer.

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In the Terminator franchise, a seemingly endless army of shape-shifting, time-traveling robots try to nix John Connor — a.k.a. humanity’s heroic savior — out of existence.

Often, the plan is foiled by Connor himself sending reprogrammed Terminators or resistance soldiers back in time to protect younger versions of himself or his mother, Sarah. However, the 2015 Terminator Genisys switches up the character dynamics established since the 1984 film that started it all.

*** Spoilers follow for Terminator Genisys ***

In the newer film, John Connor (Jason Clarke) sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) to 1984 but is ambushed by a Terminator disguised as a Resistance soldier, who we come to learn is a physical embodiment of Skynet (played by Matt Smith). John Connor becomes the movie’s time-traveling villain whose body is replaced entirely with nanobots, and utterly devoted to Skynet (known as Genisys in this film with its altered timeline).

Could you replace a body almost entirely with nanobots? No, but emerging technology is allowing scientists and doctors to replace immune cells called T cells with engineered ones packing more immunological punch.

Reel Science is an Inverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV.

What are CAR T-cells and how do they work?

T cells, also known as T lymphocytes, are a type of white blood cell that plays a crucial role in the immune system. They are a part of the adaptive immune response, which is the body's sophisticated defense mechanism against infections, pathogens, and abnormally growing cells like cancer.

There are many different types of T cells that do a myriad of functions. For instance, helper T cells recruit other immune cells during an immune response, sending out a chemical Batman-esque signal to B cells, which make antibodies, and cytotoxic T cells, the muscle of the immune system. Regulatory T cells keep the immune response from zooming out of control; memory T cells are like librarians keeping account of past encounters in the off chance they happen again, and the immune system is primed to respond quickly and effectively.

Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells are a relatively new medical advancement developed in the early 1990s. These cells are made by collecting a person’s own T cells and teaching them to recognize certain proteins by genetically inserting a gene for that target. This basically supercharges the T cell’s innate ability to sniff out cellular ne’er-do-wells.

Considered a “living drug,” CAR T cells are showing great promise for cancer immunotherapies, particularly for so-called liquid tumors — blood cancers like leukemia and multiple myeloma and those associated with the bone marrow. In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved six CAR T cell therapies for patients with advanced and treatment-resistant blood cancers.

On the other hand, treating solid tumors such as lung and breast cancer has been a tougher nut to crack. These cancers are wily, finding ways to switch up their proteins to escape detection by T cells. However, with the advent of the gene-editing tool CRISPR allowing fast and finely tuned alterations in DNA, scientists are now making inroads with solid tumors. There are preclinical studies and trials investigating CAR T cell therapy for patients not only with ovarian and lung cancer but kidney and bone cancer as well.

Like John Connor’s nanobots with their regenerative ability, CAR T cells divide and conquer, amassing into a swole, cancer-eradicating strike team. But unlike John Connor’s presumably immortal nanobots, CAR T cells aren’t long-lasting although some can persist in the body for years staying on the lookout for cancer, according to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

There’s still much ongoing research to make CAR T cells a potent force of cancer-fighting good. They definitely beat out a human-shaped mass of nanobots hellbent on taking over the world.

Terminator Genisys is streaming on Netflix.

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