The first treatment meant to redesign a patient’s own immune system to be able to attack cancer has been approved by the United States.
The new drug dubbed ‘CAR-T’, is tailored for each patient, unlike conventional therapies such as surgery or chemotherapy.
As written by BBC, the regulator – the US Food and Drug Administration – said its decision was a “historic” moment and medicine was now “entering a new frontier”.
The company Novartis is charging $475,000 (Ksh. 48,969,072) for the “living drug” therapy, which leaves 83 percent of people free of a type of blood cancer.
CAR-T is made by extracting white blood cells from the patient’s blood, which are then genetically reprogrammed to seek out and kill cancer. The cancer-killers are then put back inside the patient and once they find their target they multiply.
The therapy, which will be marketed as Kymriah, works against acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Most patients respond to normal therapy and Kymriah has been approved for when those treatments fail.
Dr.Stephan Grupp, who treated the first child with CAR-T at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said the new approach was “enormously exciting”.
That first patient had been near to death, but has now been cancer-free for more than five years.
Out of 63 patients treated with CAR-T therapy, 83 percent were in complete remission within three months and long-term data is still being collected.
However, the therapy is not without risks. It can cause potentially life-threatening cytokine release syndrome from the rapid proliferation of the CAR-T cells in the body. This can be controlled with drugs.
But the potential of CAR-T technology goes beyond one type of cancer as it has shown most promise against different blood-based cancers. However, it has struggled against “solid tumors” such as lung cancer or melanoma.
Boosting the immune system is already a cornerstone of modern cancer treatment.
A range of drugs that “take the brakes off” the immune system to allow it to attack cancer more freely have already been adopted around the world.
CAR-T technology, which goes a step further and redesigns the immune system, is at a much earlier stage.