immuno-oncology has been making headways over the last few years, from breakthrough therapy to standard of care and we are still only on the brink of fully understanding how to utilize the immune system to ward of diseases like cancer. chimeric antigen receptor [car] t-cell therapy is a particularly exciting subtype of immunotherapy or immuno-oncology, where the patients own t-cells are taken and genetically engineered through a manufacturing process and then reintroduced into the patient’s blood stream where they further multiply in number. once in the blood stream the car t-cells go in search of cancer cells, attach to them and kill the cancerous cells.

while car-t sounds like the stuff of the future, scientists and researchers have been developing car t-cell therapy for over 60 years, and in the 1980s researchers began experimenting with the concept of genetically engineered t cells to fight cancer. in the late 1990s the laboratories of carl june [MD], at the university of pennsylvania, and michel sadelain [MD] at memorial sloan kettering cancer centre, discovered how to optimally multiply the t-cells in vast numbers in the lab and return them to the body to kill cancer cells. 

carl june’s discovery has led to one of the biggest breakthroughs in oncology, considerably changing the outlook for many blood cancer patients, all of whom have failed any other treatment option. with remission rates as high as 83% and serving an under met pediatric patient population, where less drugs are discovered and tested.  this is perhaps the most important publicly funded research of our time in oncology. the leukemia and lymphoma society’s [USA] contribution to the development of car-t is truly an undertaking of enormous proportions. much like the ice challenge changed the way we think about fundraising, LLS has shown us what we can do with those funds, they have shown us how a community can create change in such a meaningful and impactful way.

while novartis is the first pharmaceutical company to bring car-t cell therapy to market, it was the leukemia and lymphoma society [USA] in 1998 that was the key engine in the advancement of the car-t cell therapy funding of dr carl june, MD at the university of pennsylvania. the leukemia and lymphoma society [USA] invested approximately 20$ million over two decades to dr june’s lab to make this game changing therapy a reality.  and has funded 40$ million specifically for car-t development, funding more than fifteen researchers and companies across the world. 

research funding dollars that came from public donations. in the fast pace of science and discovery we are currently witnessing in oncology it’s easy to forget the role that the public sector plays in delivering discoveries. the second car t-cell therapy approved by the FDA was also a public sector initiative, developed by the national cancer institute [nci] in the USA and later bought by kite | gilead. 

publicly funded research has helped launch the most medically important therapy in oncology in recent years.  we need to focus a little more on how we, as taxpayers can help build a canada that invests in science and research. a canada that plays a role in discovery and most importantly that contributes to improving patient outcomes.  this can only happen if we transition away from a culture of risk aversion to risk taking.

where would we be as a society without the car t-cell therapy option today.  without insulin, without the discovery of the t-cell receptor [discovered by canadian medical researcher dr tak wah mah].  

and without the hard working patient groups and advocates who, often under sourced, make strides and leaps to improving the lives of patients with cancer.