University of Pennsylvania Develops Immune-Cell Cancer Therapy

Novartis, the pharmaceutical and consumer healthcare product manufacturer, is set to fund a $20 million research center at the University of Pennsylvania. The funding comes with a deal between the two institutions in which Novartis will gain the technology developed at the center. Research is being conducted to manipulate immune system cells so they are able to fight cancer. UPenn is engineering trials for lymphoma, myeloma, neuroblastoma, and mesothelioma.

The university will receive the funds up front, and will be awarded payments for reaching critical milestones in the clinical, regulatory, and commercial arenas. Carl June leads the University’s team of scientists, and is surprised that such a pharmaceutical company would invest so deeply in personalized therapy. Three companies were negotiating for the deal, and Novartis was named in part because of its work with Gleevec, a chronic myeloid leukemia drug.

Mesothelioma attorneys anxiously look forward to the developments made possible by this deal. Globally, the rate of mesothelioma diagnoses continues to rise, and are expected to do so indefinitely, until there is a worldwide ban on asbestos.

Recently, UPenn scientists genetically engineered white blood cells from three leukemia patients. When introduced back into the body, the cells successfully destroyed the leukemia in all three patients, who are now currently in remission. The therapy reprograms the immune system’s white blood cells to target the cancer. Once the cells are in the cancer’s presence, they divide, and stimulate ‘memory’ T-cells, which may protect against cancer return. The university is currently treating one patient per week, and the Novartis deal will enable them to treat and save the lives of many more cancer victims.

This T-cell therapy is considered an immunotherapy treatment, which refers to the use and manipulation of the body’s immune system to fight diseases. In victims of mesothelioma, the immune system does not usually react against cancer cells because they do not recognize the cells as foreign. Cancer cells are produced within the body, and the immune system is wired to only attack and destroy bacteria or virus cells entering into the body from outside. Immunotherapy attempts to reconfigure the immune system so that it recognizes cancer cells as foreign. If treatments like this are successful, they are much preferred over more conventional treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, because the normal, healthy, necessary tissue and cells are left unharmed.

The treatment being developed at UPenn is considered a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) immunotherapy. This is a specific cancer treating process, during which T-cells are drawn from the blood, then, using CAR technology, they are manipulated to identify and seek out cells expressing proteins on cancerous tumors. The T-cells are then introduced back into the blood stream, where, ideally, they bind to the cancer cells and destroy them.

In the deal, Novartis will receive the exclusive rights to UPenn’s CART-19, their version of the CAR therapy. CART-19 targets the CD19 protein, which is associated with many B-cell malignancies, including mesothelioma. The university research team previously engineered a CAR that binds to mesothein, the protein on the surface of mesothelioma, pancreatic cancer, and ovarian cancer cells. Clinical trials for this vector are currently underway, and preliminary results were announced early in 2012. Directors of the program announced that in combination gene therapy/chemotherapy trials there was an 80% response rate, although the final results have not yet been published.

UPenn and Novartis are also building a first-of-its-kind Center for Advanced Cellular Therapies on the Philadelphia campus. This center is expected to accelerate the discovery and development of CAR immunotherapy’s and will house experts, scientists and clinicians from both UPenn and Novartis.

Novartis is headquartered in Basel, Switzerland and operates in more than 140 countries. Mesothelioma attorneys are hopeful that the research and development alliance between the company and UPenn will produce groundbreaking and landmark treatments for cancer patients around the world.