Senior Project Leader, Deeley Research Centre, BC Cancer Agency Vancouver Island Centre

T cell therapy is a revolutionary treatment that involves using a patient’s own t-cells, or immune cells, to target and attack cancer cells in a way that’s more precise and effective than many other forms of cancer treatment currently available.

It’s a promising form of cancer therapy, with very high response rates of up to 90 per cent in certain cancers.

At BC Cancer we are currently setting up for two different types of T cell therapy clinical trials, with the goal of bringing these treatments to patients as soon as possible.

Using the body’s immune system to combat cancer

The first approach we are developing is something called tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy (or TIL therapy). In this approach we isolate the T lymphocytes from tumors that have been surgically removed from patients as part of their normal ‘standard of care’. These T cells can be expanded in the lab (takes several weeks) and then frozen down in liquid nitrogen.

In the event that the cancer recurs and the patient meets all criteria for the study, the cells are thawed, expanded in a second growth step and then infused into the patient via an IV. We are going to explore this treatment approach in patients with certain types of recurrent gynecologic cancer.

The second approach we are developing is something called CAR-T therapy. This is a bit more advanced in that it is essentially using a genetically modified T cell. In this approach we isolate T cells from the patients peripheral blood and then engineer them in the lab to express a molecule called a ‘chimeric antigen receptor’, hence the name CAR-T cell.

This CAR molecule allows the T cell to recognize and kill cancerous cells in certain types of leukemia and lymphoma.

Both of these approaches use live T cells that are derived from, and then delivered to, the same patient. Moreover, because they are composed of actual living cells they are being referred to as “living drugs”.

T-cell treatments bringing new hope to cancer patients

 It’s an exciting field of cancer research that’s bringing hope to patients across our province and around the world.

CAR-T cells are proving to be an especially effective treatment, with very high response rates (upwards of 80-90 per cent complete responses in patients with very advanced leukemia).

CAR T cells have only been around for the last 5 or 6 years, and the manufacture of these CAR-T cells was a rather complex process in their earlier days.

Recent advances in instrumentation have automated many steps in the CAR-T production process, and have brought the production cycle down to a mere twelve days.

We are fortunate in that through support of our BC Cancer Foundation donors, we have recently acquired the equipment necessary to manufacture CAR-T cells using this accelerated process and will be acting as the manufacturing centre for a pan-Canadian CAR-T clinical effort in 2019.

As part of bringing this therapy to life, we’ve had to convert a standard research lab into a small-scale, academic pharmaceutical plant – a so-called “clean” room – the Conconi Family Immunotherapy Lab- that was entirely funded by generous donors to the BC Cancer Foundation.

We are now in the final stages of preparing our submission to Health Canada, (who regulates this type of activity) so that we can start treating patients as quickly as possible.

Next week, I’ll discuss in more detail the impact of philanthropy on this treatment and how the BC Cancer Foundation’s Jingle Mingle on December 6 will further support this work.

To learn more about how you can support this promising new treatment, please visit: 

Thanks for reading,

Dr. John Webb