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UVM Cancer Center announces availability of new CAR T-cell treatment for blood cancer patients

Andy Duback
Photo provided by the UVM Medical Center/UVM Cancer Center
Dr. James Gerson is an assistant professor in the Larner College of Medicine’s School of Medicine, the UVM Cancer Center's director of the CAR T-cell program and is one of the first physicians in the country to use CAR T-cell therapy in a clinical setting.

A cutting-edge treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to destroy cancer cells is now available at the University of Vermont Cancer Center.

The treatment, called CAR T-cell therapy, was approved by the FDA in 2017 for blood cancer treatment. Following treatment, depending on the cancer type, 50 to 80 percent of patients have no detectable cancer remaining.

The therapy was discovered and developed at the University of Pennsylvania. The UVM Cancer Center’s CAR T-cell program is led by a member of that original research team. Dr. James Gerson says the groundbreaking therapy has completely changed the lives of patients.

“The center treated hundreds of patients and I treated close to 100 of my own personal patients with this therapy in a variety of different settings and saw dramatic improvement for many of them. For all intents and purposes, many of these patients with advanced cancer who had really no other treatment options ended up being cured from their cancer after receiving this treatment. And if you look back at patients who were treated 10 years ago, under research protocols with the first CAR T-cell therapy, the majority of them remain in remission and we really think that that is going to equate to a long-term cure.”

UVM Cancer Center Director Dr. Randall Holcombe says the CAR T-cell therapy is an important addition to the center’s ability to treat patients.

“We pride ourselves in offering state-of-the-art cancer treatments. And it's important to offer cutting edge therapies such as CAR T therapy, which has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat blood-borne type cancers such as lymphoma. This is a very significant development for the cancer center here to reach people with these diseases who live in Vermont and northern New York.”

Dr. Gerson says CAR T-cell or “chimeric antigen receptor” T-cell therapy is an innovative, high-tech process that uses the patient’s own immune system.

“I like to tell my patients that this is really a living therapy that they're going to be treated with. The first step after identifying a patient who's eligible for this therapy is to remove the immune cells from the body and the immune cells that we're looking for specifically are called T-cells. These T-cells are then engineered to target cancer by creating a new receptor on their cell surface that can recognize cancer cells. The T-cells are expanded and then they're eventually given back to the patient, sort of similar to a blood transfusion. On a cellular level that allows the T-cell to engage with the cancer cell and then kill it.”

The therapy is only approved for blood cancers such as leukemias and multiple myelomas, a cancer of white plasma blood cells. Dr. Gerson explains that CAR T-cell was first effectively tested in lymphomas.

“It has been tried and there's a lot of interest in using this in solid tumors, such as breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, etc. And for a variety of reasons we don't quite understand, to be completely honest, it doesn't work as well for non-blood cancers. But this is an area of active research. And as a follow up to that we are very excited to begin research in the CAR T-cell space after we've gotten our commercial program up and running and really offering patients clinical trials that might be on the forefront of discovery, both in blood cancers as well as in solid cancer.”

The typical treatment cost is about $400,000 and cancer center officials say insurance companies cannot refuse coverage because the treatment is FDA approved.

Other facilities that offer the treatment include the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, Dana Farber in Boston, the Yale School of Medicine, the Wilmot Cancer Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo.