A new therapy has been putting previously untreatable cancers into remission
Dr. Marla Shapiro, W5
Published Thursday, March 7, 2019 12:00PM EST
When I first started practising medicine, kids diagnosed with ALL or Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, had limited options for treatment and cure.
They underwent difficult treatments including chemotherapy, radiation and stem cell transplant. For most children with ALL, those treatments were grueling, but effective. But for the children who relapsed—whose cancer returned—fewer than 10 per cent of them survived five years.
Frankly, it was heartbreaking caring for these families.
As a physician, and a woman who has undergone chemotherapy for breast cancer, I can tell you how difficult treatment can be. For kids, some startlingly young, enduring these therapies is even harder. Cancer also leaves an indelible mark on their families.
When I first heard about a new, potentially revolutionary therapy for these kids and young adults, who had relapsed and had no hope, it was incredibly exciting. ALL is the most common childhood cancer and research into this new treatment, something called called CAR T-cell therapy, appeared so promising that it was frankly, to me, breathtaking. It was clear that we had to follow the trail of research.
CAR-T stands for chimeric antigen receptor T-Cell therapy. Simply put, the patient’s own immune cells are taken from their blood and then in truly remarkable individualized therapy, those immune cells, their T cells, are modified so that they are able to recognize the cancer cells and kill them. The new and improved cancer killing cells are then re-injected into the patient where they go to work destroying cancer cells.
On W5’s journey we met two very special ALL patients. Jordan McInerney was four months old when she was diagnosed, and Cameron Lahti was three when he first got ill. Both went through multiple treatments—chemo, radiation; plus a bone marrow transplant for Jordan—but they both failed and relapsed.
They both joined a groundbreaking CAR T cell clinical trial conducted at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia -- their last hope.
When I first met Jordan and her family, it seemed incredible to believe that this cute five-year-old had been through so much. She does not know a life without cancer and cancer treatments. Her parents have sacrificed much for her care as have her twin brothers.
Cameron, as well, just wants to be a kid who hangs with his friends, but that was not what he has been able to do for most of his life.
W5 went to Philadelphia to follow the research and these kids who were part of this trial.
There we met Dr. Carl June, whose lab at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia pioneered this therapy. Meeting Dr. June was, for me, the medical equivalent of meeting George Clooney. He is a star in the medical world.
This therapy and his lab have the potential to change the meaning of a cancer diagnosis. A treatment like CAR T cell therapy was the stuff of science fiction just a decade ago, and as Dr. June said, “we started out and no one paid attention to us because no one thought it would work.”
There are still questions about CAR T -- the cost, and there is no long-term data because it is so new. But as a physician treating patients in the community, the evolution to personalized medicine of this sort changes the way we see cancer and is incredibly exciting.
Pharmaceutical company Novartis owns the patent for the groundbreaking cancer treatment CAR T-cell therapy which it markets under the brand name Kymriah. The therapy costs about $637,000 CAD per treatment in the U.S. Kymriah was approved by Health Canada in 2018. Novartis wouldn’t confirm its proposed Canadian price to W5 as it is still under negotiation, but provided us with a statement:
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