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OU Medicine’s Stephenson Cancer Center to offer breakthrough treatment

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Adam Asch and George Selby.

A revolutionary new cancer treatment is now available at the Stephenson Cancer Center at OU Medicine.

CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) T-cell therapy has been approved by the FDA and is being offered in Oklahoma exclusively at the Stephenson Cancer Center in Oklahoma City, according to an OU Medicine press release. It will become available June 13, according to the release, and will be used to treat leukemia and lymphoma in children and adults.

A public announcement was made Wednesday morning in the main lobby of the Stephenson Cancer Center, where two medical professionals spoke about the significance of this new development.

George Selby, director of the Transplant and Cellular Therapy program at the Stephenson Cancer Center and OU Medicine, said the normal immune system usually works as a sentry to protect against a malignancy. CAR T-cell therapy reboots the immune system to fight cancer.

“In the case of CAR therapy, the patient’s white blood cell has had genetic information injected into it, so it behaves differently,” Selby said.

A patient seeking CAR T treatment will have blood collected at the Oklahoma Blood Institute much like a traditional blood donation, but only white blood cells will be taken, said Selby.

“Within white blood cells, there is a subtype called T-cells. T-cells will then be treated with a virus that injects new genetic information into them and that genetic information will have that T-cell make a receptor toward molecules that are found on cancer cells,” Selby said. “That receptor acts as an anchor to anchor a T-cell toward a cancer cell. The T-cell then becomes activated and kills the cancer cell.”

According to the news release, CAR T therapy is different than other types of cancer therapies because it is a one-time treatment. The injected T-cells remain in the body, and if cancer returns, the T-cells reactivate to attack the cancerous cells.

Selby said the CAR T treatment will initially be used to treat advanced leukemias and lymphomas in adults, but in the coming weeks it will become available at the Children’s Hospital of Oklahoma.

One of the CAR T treatments is approved by the FDA for use in children and young adults up to the age of 25, and the other one is approved for all adults over 18, Selby said. Among this patient population, Selby said, the treatment is roughly 80% effective in children and about 50% effective in adults.

“A patient whose lymphoma has recurred after more conventional therapy, including stem cell transplant, has had very few options to obtain a cure until CAR T-cell therapy has come along,” Selby said. “It’s an incredible new advancement in the treatment of these malignancies.”

Adam Asch, deputy director of the Stephenson Cancer Center and chief of the Division of Medical Oncology and Hematology, said the development of CAR T-cell therapy is the culmination of hard work by many, including researchers, clinical investigators, staff and administrative personnel at the Stephenson Cancer Center.

“Harnessing the immune system to fight cancer really has been a holy grail for oncology for many years,” Asch said. “It is the work of remarkable basic scientists in laboratories that have illuminated mechanisms that the immune system uses to detect and fight cancer. Investigators have taken those observations to use gene therapy techniques to turn T-cells into serial killer cells that recognize and kill thousands of tumor cells over and over again.”

There are four other companies — Novartis, Kite Pharma, Juno Therapeutics and Cartesian Therapeutics — making CAR T that are either FDA-approved or close to it, Selby said.

Before the announcement at Stephenson Cancer Center, Asch said patients in need of the CAR T therapy were forced to seek treatment out of state, often being referred out to Texas, Nebraska or New York if conventional treatments of leukemia and lymphoma were unsuccessful.

While there are CAR T programs offered out-of-state, Stephenson is likely to be exclusive in its availability to conduct the treatment in Oklahoma because of the complexity of the therapy, Asch said.

Asch said while the therapy may become more widely available as it develops, it isn’t amenable to every hospital because the process of the treatment is technical and complex, and it requires a large team of about 30 or 40 people.

“As exciting as it is, we are really at the dawn of an age of new cellular therapies and new cellular immune therapies,” Asch said.

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