One of the first major waves of personalised ‘living drugs’ biotech treatments for leukaemia has been heralded as a ‘game changer’ by the boss of NHS England. The new CAR-T therapy, which ‘re-engineers’ the immune system to fight cancer has shown remarkable results during clinical trials. The one-time treatment has proven to be a permanent cure for some patients, with the results so clearly beneficial that it achieved regulatory approval in record time.
Now, only 10 days after being given clearance to be prescribed in Europe, the NHS has been so impressed that the treatment, which costs £282, 000 per patient, has been accepted as a necessary expense and will be made available.
CAR-T, or Chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy, to give the treatment its full name, is part of a new generation of personalised drugs, many more of which are anticipated to become available over the next five to ten years. The treatment, an example of the latest technology in the world of biotech, sees a patient’s immune cells (T-cells) harvested. They are then genetically engineered in a way that leads to them producing a synthetic molecule which attacks cancer cells. The T-cells are reintroduced to the patient’s body where they then multiply and in many cases completely wipe out the cancer.
NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens will make a speech today to herald the new ‘game changer’ treatment that patients of the National Health Service will be among the first in the world to benefit from. The first CAR-T treatments will be administered in hospitals in London, Manchester and Newcastle within weeks. Stevens has labelled it “one of the most innovative treatments that has ever been offered on the NHS”.
The treatment will initially be used for children suffering from B cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) who have not responded to other available leukaemia treatments or have relapsed. A remarkable 80 per cent of patients with ALL treated by CAR-T saw their cancer entirely eradicated, although it can have severe side-effects. It is believed that in the near future CAR-T will be used to treat a wide range of blood cancer varieties as test results come in and costs fall.
The NHS, with Stevens fighting hard on the front, has been negotiating hard with life sciences companies to offer their new generation biotech treatments within a feasible price range. Stevens, who was forced to reject a similar therapy for adult blood cancer patients due to its expense, has held up Novartis, with whom it will do the deal in question, as the kind of ‘responsible and flexible life sciences companies’ the NHS can partner with.
It is hoped that in the future therapies such as CAR-T will be able to be developed as ‘off-the-shelf’ drugs that don’t require the harvesting of T-cells from individual patients. That would help significantly reduce costs. Experts believe that within five to ten years, engineering the immune system through biotech treatments to fight cancer and other illnesses will be routine part of medicine.