Cutting-edge treatment targets cancer

BC Cancer Foundation seeks $4 million to fund clinical trial

Oak Bay News owner David Black, hosted the announcement of a funding campaign to support clinical trials of a new cancer treatment at his Oak Bay home this week.

“This is a cutting-edge form of treatment,” said Dr. Brad Nelson, Director of the Trev and Joyce Deeley Research Centre.

In 10 years of research at the centre, Nelson and his team are prepared to begin clinical trials of a form of immunotherapy called adoptive T cell therapy, or ACT.

The therapy involves taking a patient’s cancerous tumour, after it’s been removed, and harvesting T cells in the lab.

“(We can) pull out the immune cells, in particular the T cells that are in the tumour, and are trying to fight that tumour – having a ground battle if you will – and we can take those T cells and grow them in the lab … get them all ramped up and revived and in very large numbers and give them back to the patient in an IV bag as an infusion.”

Those T cells then enter the blood stream and circulate throughout the patient’s body, wherever cancer cells may be trying to hide, whether it be in the bone marrow, liver, or other organs. Those T cells will be able to find the cancer recognize it and destroy it, he said.

“It’s an entirely new approach to cancer treatment. It’s using the body’s own defences to fight (cancer) but with some help from science – and it’s working,” he said.

The goal of immunotherapy is to enhance the immune response to cancer using drugs, vaccines or T cell infusions. Successfull immunotherapy rids the body of residual cancer cells. The T cells also remain in the body, protecting the patient from a reoccurrence.

The funding campaign will allow for the construction of a Good Manufacturing Process Clean Room, a secure, closed suite with special air filtration equipment that keeps the entire space sterile. Researchers wear gowns, hoods and booties while inside to protect the integrity of their work.

The BC Cancer Agency believes a $4 million charitable investment will lead to some $4 to $6-million in grant funding.

“Philanthropy will be the driver for this exciting research,” said Alyssa Grace, Senior Director, Development for the BC Cancer Foundation. “At this stage, the Ministry of Health does not fund early stage clinical trials and there is no apparent commercial value to the work that’s being done.

“It’s a procedure. It’s a process that involves a patient’s own T cells. So, philanthropy will drive the science through this first phase of clinical trials.”

Those clinical trials, which will include 10 to 15 patients per year, are expected to begin as early as 2017.

“We’re at $1.2 of a $4-million goal to get to the end of the first phase of clinical trials and that will build the infrastructure, the staffing and the protocols around the clinical trial,” said Grace.

BC is a leader in cancer research discoveries, said Nelson. “We can be an international leader with this investment,” he added.

He and his team are encouraged by results in immunotherapy coming from the United States.

“We’re hearing reports of T cell therapy being highly successful in melanoma in centres in the U.S. and more recently in leukemia as well.”

In a recent clinical trial in Philadelphia involving children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, engineered T cells generated “complete, durable remission” in 14 of 22 patients, he said.

“This is the most exciting period of my career, no question,” said Nelson. “It’s exciting as a scientist to get to test your ideas.”

Nelson and his team want to build a program in BC to offer the T cell treatments to those with ovarian cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer.

The first clinical trial will focus on patients with ovarian cancer.

To learn more, or to make a donation, go to bccancerfoundation.com.