E. John Wherry, PhD
Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy for hematological malignancies took a huge step forward this summer with the FDA approval of Novartis’ tisagenlecleucel (Kymriah) for relapsed/refractory B-cell precursor acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in children and young adults. However, a team of scientists at the University of Pennsylvania is working to make CAR T cells work in solid tumor disease as well.
A phase I human trial is now under way at Penn to not only test the efficacy of CAR T cells in pancreatic cancer but also to serve as an observation platform for making discoveries in how to improve the potency of this immunocellular therapy, Wherry said. CAR T-cell therapy involves removing a patient’s immune cells and conditioning them to express proteins that can recognize specific molecules on the surface of cancer cells. Those targeted cells are then infused into the patient, where they seek out and attack cancerous cells. Wherry is working with Carl June, MD, and Shelley L. Berger, PhD, on the project, which is supported by the Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Research and Stand Up to Cancer.
Making Headway With Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer has been one of the most difficult of targets because effective therapies are lacking and the disease, which is often diagnosed late in development, progresses rapidly. For those reasons, Wherry explained, oncologists at Penn do their best to get patients with pancreatic cancer onto clinical trials as quickly as possible. That gives them a chance at receiving the most advanced medicine. There are reasons to believe that CAR T-cell therapy could be effective in this tumor environment, he said, and that makes it worthwhile to pursue this avenue of investigation. “We just really don’t have any good immunotherapy options for pancreatic cancer, and prognosis with standard of care such as chemotherapy has not dramatically improved in recent years,” he noted.
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