March 14, 2017 11:51 pm
Updated: March 14, 2017 11:52 pm

B.C. researchers working to bring ‘game-changing’ cancer treatment to Canada

WATCH: If some B.C. scientists have their way, a cutting edge cancer treatment that turns peoples’ own immune system into a cancer-fighting weapon will be available in B.C. next year. Neetu Garcha reports.

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Cancer patients in B.C. and Ontario could be treated with the latest cutting-edge therapy by next year.

B.C.-based scientists are leading the way in bringing CAR T-cell therapy to Canada.

The therapy involves extracting T-cells from a patient before genetically engineering those T-cells to recognize cancer cells.

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“Patients are given an infusion of these T-cells and they are able to then circulate through the body and seek out and destroy cancer cells wherever they might be hiding,” Director of the B.C. Cancer Agency’s Deeley Research Centre, Dr. Brad Nelson said.

“There’s no question this is a complete game-changer for oncology.”

CAR T-Cell therapy is the subject of clinical trials around the world and a team of B.C. Cancer Agency researchers not only want to bring the technology to Canada, they want to enhance it.

READ MORE: Trial therapy from U.S. likely last option for Alberta firefighter battling leukemia

“We’ve got some great ideas on how to improve on the engineering,” Nelson said.

One of the improvements, Nelson said, would help deal with an issue seen in some of the early trials where the T-cell response was too strong, leading to serious side effects.

“[It] would be to give clinicians greater control over the T-cells so we could turn them up or turn them down as needed for each patient.”

So far, the treatment has only been applied to certain types of leukemia and lymphoma. Another improvement Nelson said the team is working to make the treatment apply to other types of cancer.

“In certain types of leukemia the response rates are as high at 90 per cent… so 90 per cent of patients having complete regression, disappearance of their tumour. And the relapse rate is very low,” Nelson said.

“These are extremely exciting times and we are just happy to be able to bring these treatments to our patients.”

They’re hoping to open clinical trials in B.C. and Ontario by mid-2018.

“We need to apply for and gain approval from Health Canada, do clinical trials in Canada… and if all goes well, we’ll be able to move it into standard of care for some types of cancer,” Head of Sequencing for BC Cancer Agency’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre, Dr. Rob Holt said.

But it is still an experimental treatment that doesn’t work for everyone.

Bo Cooper is one of those people.

The Fort McMurray firefighter, former mixed martial arts fighter, had been battling Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) for several years.

He was accepted into an experimental CAR T cell therapy trial in the U.S.

A few months in, his cancer went into remission. But that good news was short-lived. Cooper died last fall.

“It doesn’t work for everybody all the time, unfortunately; that’s why we need to keep doing research to make it even better,” Nelson said.

Nelson said any patients interested in taking part in the clinical trials and can inquire with their oncologist.

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