New trial to kill cancer cells

Hopeful research: A CytoMed lab technician preparing CAR T-cells from healthy donors for infusion to a patient. — The Straits Times/ANN

A new treatment using white blood cells from healthy donors that are modified to more effectively recognise and kill cancer cells will be trialled in Singapore from April.

The two-year trial at the National University Cancer Institute, Singapore (NCIS) will test the therapy on nine to 18 patients who have lymphoma, multiple myeloma, colorectal cancer, lung cancer, liver cancer or ovarian cancer – six of the most common types of cancers in Singapore.

The new treatment, developed by local biotech firm CytoMed Therapeutics, treats cancer patients with modified T cells – a type of white blood cell that helps the body fight infections and diseases, including cancer.

CytoMed’s new treatment potentially advances existing chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapies by using white blood cells from healthy, cancer-free donors instead of from cancer patients themselves, as is the current practice.

Cancerous cells are occasionally able to evade detection by the body’s immune system, and this is where cell-based immunotherapies like the CAR T-cell therapy come in.

“T cells in our body may not always be able to recognise or kill cancer cells, because the cancer cells can disguise themselves as healthy cells and produce signals that can suppress the patient’s immune cells at the cancer site,” said CytoMed chief operating officer Tan Wee Kiat.

“CytoMed’s new product grafts an artificial protein, known as a chimeric antigen receptor, on the surface of these T cells to allow them to target and destroy cancer cells more effectively.”

The CAR T-cell therapy is much more targeted than conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, which kills both cancerous and healthy cells.

The two CAR T-cell therapies currently available in Singapore are both autologous – meaning that the T cells are harnessed from the patient themselves.

They are approved to treat only certain relapsed or refractory types of leukaemia or lymphoma.

Dr Tan said: “Our treatment is allogeneic, which means that the T cells are obtained from healthy donors, who do not have to be genetically matched with the intended patients.”

These allogeneic T cells may be of higher quality, since they are obtained from healthy donors as opposed to sick patients.

The trial will assess if this leads to more effective treatment.

Dr Tan Lip Kun, a senior consultant at NCIS and one of the trial’s investigators, said: “In autologous CAR T-cell therapies, the T cells are obtained from cancer patients.

“These patients tend to have high-risk, relapsed or resistant cancers, and would have undergone several courses of chemotherapy or other types of immunotherapy, so their own T cells are fewer and weaker. This makes it harder to genetically engineer and manufacture enough CAR T cells to recognise and fight the cancer cells.” — The Straits Times/ANN

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