Cancer of the stomach and gastroesophageal junction — where the esophagus meets the stomach — is a formidable disease. Symptoms can be vague, often delaying diagnosis until the cancer has advanced and treatments are limited. To expand options, Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Cancer Network researchers are investigating an innovative immunotherapy.  

A phase I trial, called CARSGEN-CT041-ST-02, tests genetically modified immune cells — CAR T cells — for safety and effectiveness. The therapy targets a specific protein overexpressed by about one-third of people with gastroesophageal cancers. CARSGEN is the first CAR T-cell trial directed toward gastroesophageal cancer undertaken within the Cancer Network.  

“We take T cells, or immune cells, from the patient’s body and re-engineer them to fight cancer cells that harbor this particular protein,” said Ben George, MD, medical oncologist, MCW faculty member and local principal investigator. “We’re enhancing the  body’s immune response by collecting these cells, expanding them  outside the body and delivering them as personalized treatment to  patients whose tumors express this protein.”  

T cells collected from participants are sent to a lab, where they are modified and multiplied to lock onto the cancer protein. About four to six weeks later, the fortified T cells are given back to patients through an IV.  

“We watch patients closely in the hospital for several days to make sure there are no interactions with normal cell proteins,” Dr. George said. “After the infusion, patients receive periodic scans and bloodwork. As long as the cells continue to work on the cancer, we don’t need to do any  other chemotherapy or treatments.”  

Early data suggests that some patients who receive this infusion receive durable benefits lasting up to a year or longer. Physicians have the option of infusing more T cells later.  

“For advanced cancer, standard treatments currently in use are more likely to control than cure cancer,” Dr. George said. “Our hope is that this novel strategy might lead to a cure. Re-engineering a patient’s own cells to fight cancer may well be the most exciting  treatment in this area over the last several years.”  

This national trial is only available in Wisconsin at the Froedtert & MCW Cancer Network.