Maybe, just maybe, cancer’s time is up – or at least looking increasingly limited. The first of a new class of medicine is just about to reach the clinic, with therapies capturing the power of the immune system to attack and destroy cancer cells.
While there’s been an incremental improvement in the treatment of many cancers, these therapies could ultimately represent a step-change in the way many cancers are treated.
A new network of advanced therapy treatment centres
Earlier this year we awarded three consortia - involving companies, universities and NHS hospitals - around £21 million through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund’s (ISCF) challenge to create advanced therapy treatment centres. These centres have an urgent missions – to work through the nuts and bolts of how to deliver some of the next generation of medicines.
Creating new medicines for treating blood cancer
The first of these new therapies are aimed at patients with blood cancers. Although treatments for blood cancer has seen huge improvement the current range of therapies still don’t work for everyone.
The new therapies have been tested on those patients where other options have run-out. It is therefore all the more remarkable that these medicines have has such dramatic effects with the majority of patients treated going into remission and many appearing to have been effectively cured.
The results of clinical trials have been so dramatic that the medicines regulators have fast-tracked the approval process and earlier this year the European Medicines Agency (EMA) announced that it had granted preliminary approval for two rather exotically named medicines Kymriah and Yescarta.
Using patient's own cells to create medicine
However, it is not their names but their very nature of these medicines that sets them apart from other medicines. They apply cellular engineering to a specific set of a patient’s own immune cells (actually T cells) so the living cells can seek out and destroy the cancer.
The strength of these therapies is that they rely on a patient’s own cells to create medicine – the ultimate personalised medicine. But this feature also creates problems as the medicine is actually a living product. It can’t just sit on a pharmacy shelf but requires a similar level of care as an organ for transplant.
For all its many virtues the NHS simply lacks the infrastructure and systems to deliver these new medicines at any significant scale.
Funding the creation of multidisciplinary teams
ISCF funding has allowed the creation of multidisciplinary teams of clinicians, academics, product-developers and logistics companies within three advanced therapy treatment centres. The teams have three years to create bespoke systems capable of operating across the entire NHS with the potential to treat hundreds if not thousands of patients each month.
While some of the issues may appear trivial as they deal with labelling and freezer space they are nonetheless critical. It’s also worth remembering that these projects are being delivered within working hospitals that still need to treat patients on a day to day basis.
May represent a step-change for cancer treatment
The two therapies on the cusp of being approved mark the first of a new class of therapy to treat cancer and potentially cure these cancers. The therapies are likely to be the first of many and large pharma has been spending big bucks to acquire related therapies in development.
Just how big an impact that these therapies will have is always hard to judge.
We’ve all seen experts on the TV promising the transformation of cancer treatment only to find that the reality fails to live up to the hype. However, I think there is every reason to think that this time things really are different and I’m not alone in thinking that these therapies may represent a step-change for cancer treatment. No less than Simon Stevens, Chief Executive NHS England appears to agree – earlier this year he made it clear that NHS England needs to be able to be ready to deliver these new therapies.
Advanced therapy treatment centres future-proofing the NHS
Kymriah and Yescarta are classified as advanced therapies which includes a broad mish-mash of cellular and gene therapies which have often been lauded as the next big thing in medicine.
Much of the infrastructure and processes needed to deliver therapies therapies also apply to other advanced therapies so the advanced therapy treatment centres could be seen as form of future-proofing for the NHS.
A global reputation for advanced therapies for the UK
The Government has provided targeted support the advanced therapy sector for many years through investment in universities, hospitals and product developers. Clinical delivery remains a significant final barrier and unless the NHS can provide these therapies then the companies developing these next generation therapies will simply look to other countries.
The advanced therapy treatment centres therefore represent a critical final element of the UK’s global reputation for all advanced therapies. With a combination of significant funding from ISCF funding and the dedication of the teams working in the advanced therapy treatment centres I am confident that patients in the UK will be amongst the first to benefit from these new treatments.
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