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Israeli researchers pioneer paradigm shift in cancer treatment

Unlike a traditional vaccine that prevents disease, the aim of NeoVax, an experimental skin cancer treatment tailor-made to target a particular patient's tumours, is to prevent cancer from recurring in patients whose tumours have been removed
MUJAHID SAFODIEN (AFP/File)
A group of Israeli scientists has discovered that the trick to fighting cancer is to modify the immune system

An entirely new way to fight cancer is almost ready to go public.

The American Food and Drug Administration unanimously recommended a revolutionary new cancer treatment for its final approval. and it’s a paradigm shift in how doctors and researchers treat certain cancers.

Cancer is difficult for a person’s immune system to fight on its own - the disease occurs when the body’s own cells turn against it, so the immune system does not always recognize it in the same way would a foreign threat. Even when it does, it is not always enough to stop the spread.

A group of Israeli scientists has discovered that the trick is to modify the immune system. By using the Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-Cell Therapy (CAR-T) to genetically modify T-cells, the cells that fight the virus-infected cells, a stronger version of the original system can be created, with the added ability of detecting and hunting specific cancers.

“We take blood from the patient, and we isolate the blood immune cells before inserting a new gene into the cells. This new gene actually educates the T-Cells, makes them able to recognize the tumor cells,’ explains Dr. Michal Besser, Head of Laboratory at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center’s Ella Lemelbaum Institute for Immuno-Oncology.

The modified cells are then replicated in a lab and reintroduced into the patient’s body where they multiply even more-- fortifying the immune system with the new stronger and more aggressive T-cells.

These new cells are keyed to a unique chemical signature - a molecule called CD19 found on B-cells, the immune system cells that make antibodies - on the surface of lymphoma and leukemia tumors. The modified T-cells then attack the cancer cells the same way they would an infection.

CAR-T isn’t a universal cancer cure, with the clinical trial at Sheba hospital specifically targeting leukemia and lymphoma, but the same idea holds true across all cancers. Once researchers can identify the tumor’s unique molecular signature they can begin developing the CAR-T cells that hunt it down. The challenge is making sure they don’t hurt healthy cells with similar chemical signatures, though researchers are confident that those breakthroughs are only a few years away.

“The therapy is currently only suitable for B-cell malignancies,” says Dr. Besser, “But we hope that now that the platform exists, medical research centers worldwide can use the same kind of therapy for other cancer treatments.”

The basis of CAR-T treatment is the result of more than 20 years of research pioneered in Israel by immunologist Zelig Eshhar. The clinical trial underway at Sheba Medical Center was assisted by genetic components received from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda Maryland.

CAR-T is still in its clinical trials, but at the Pediatric and Adult Hemato-Oncology department at Sheba Medical Center in Israel, the treatment has boasted remarkably high success rates. Seventeen people were treated, all patients whose cancers had proven resistant to chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants. Of those 17, 75% had a complete response to the experimental treatment.

The new treatment also has less crippling side effects than traditional methods of treatment. Chemotherapy kills the body's immune system, leaving a patient weak and unable to fight infections. CAR-T leaves the patient’s immune system intact. Side effects of the new treatment include fever and a low rate of neurotoxicity.

“We had a seven year old girl, she got treated last December, when we came to give her the cells she was very, very sick. She couldn’t even get out of bed. We came back to visit her three weeks later she was going back and forth on her rollerblades,” says Dr. Besser.

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