In case you’ve missed it, Philly docs have scored some big headlines recently. After nearly thirty years in development at the University of Pennsylvania, a novel cancer treatment that many are calling the most promising yet could be just weeks away from hitting the market.
Back in July, the gene therapy known as CAR T, named for the chimeric antigen receptor T-cells it utilizes, was unanimously recommended for approval by an FDA advisory committee. The recommendation is as close to a predictor of approval as a treatment can get. The long path of immunotherapy research and trials – headed by Dr. Carl June – that led to the submission for FDA approval was recently chronicled in a Time feature titled “Inside Cancer’s Newest Miracle Cure.” After years of trials with an erratic range of results, June’s major breakthrough came when he identified a biological marker unique to cancerous leukemia cells that allowed him to tweak his treatment to make it a little more targeted.
The first clinical trial that used genetically engineered T-cells was conducted by June in 2015 and involved a group of children at CHOP, most of whom who had run out of other options. The physicians at the Center for Cellular Immunotherapy at Abramson Cancer Center, where June is the director, were thrilled when they saw the results. “You take someone who essentially has no possibility for a cure — almost every single one of these patients dies — and with [this] therapy, 90% go into remission,” Dr. David Porter, Penn’s director of blood and bone-marrow transplantation, told Time.
Why does this treatment work so well? While standard immunotherapies involve injections of synthetic or otherwise external substances intended to cause a variety of cancer-attacking reactions in the immune system, CAR T aids this attack in a different way. T-cells, already in charge of attacking the cancer, are removed from the body and given a charge of CAR. When injected back into the body, not only are these cells already familiar with their environment – they’re now fully armed for a more powerful attack.
But while doping up your warrior T-cells sounds like the miracle cancer cure we’ve all been waiting for, the treatment doesn’t come risk-free. When in action, the large-scale immune system response causes extremely high fevers and other worrisome side effects. Still, while CAR T may not be the end-all and be-all for cancer right now, it’s the closest medicine has come in a while.
“This is just the beginning,” June told Time.
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