Breakthrough therapy for blood cancer may treat solid tumors, study suggests

Breakthrough immune therapy for blood cancers may eventually become a universal treatment for solid tumors, according to a study led by one of the pioneers in the field, Carl June, M.D.

A study on this approach to what is called CAR T cell therapy was published Tuesday in the journal Cell Reports. June was the senior author, Biliang Hu was first author. Both are of the University of Pennsylvania. The study can be found at j.mp/cartil18.

The first CAR T cell treatment, originating in research by a team led by June, was approved in August by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Called Kymriah, it is sold by Novartis for forms of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

UC San Diego cancer expert Ezra Cohen, M.D., praised the science behind the new study, but cautioned that years of development may lie ahead before the new approach can be tested in people.

CAR T cell therapy has scored dramatic successes in rescuing blood cancer patients who were close to death. However, it’s risky, it only works for some patients, and the treatment must be custom-made, driving up the price. Moreover this therapy isn’t targeted at solid tumors, such as those of the breast, prostate, colon and lung.

June and colleagues demonstrated in mice that their new version of the therapy shows effectiveness, including greater proliferation of the CAR T cells, which are immune cells genetically engineered to fight cancer. The mice were given grafts of human pancreatic and melanoma tumors.

Existing versions require the T cells to be taken from each patient, custom-engineered to fight each patient’s cancer, incubated, and then transferred back into the patients. This process is not only costly, but it takes time. A universal, off-the-shelf therapy could be prepared ahead of time and used when needed.

June and colleagues engineered the off-the-shelf, or allogeneic cells to produce a protein called interleukin-18, or IL-18, that enhances the antitumor response.

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