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'The future is so bright': Research empowering cells to attack cancer shows promise

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A new-to-the Maritimes cancer treatment using CAR T-Cell immunotherapy is showing promising results.

CAR T-Cell therapy is a fairly new tool in the fight against cancer. It uses the patient’s own T-cells to identify and target cancer cells. It is used when chemotherapy and radiation have not been effective.

Dalhousie University researcher Dr. Mahmoud Elsawy says his team has successfully treated 30 patients with this highly-personalized form of immunotherapy, with ‘many’ of them now in remission.

Dalhousie University researcher Dr. Mahmoud Elsawy is pictured in his office on June 12, 2024.

“It’s kind of like hijacking the immune stem, in a sense, and harnesses it toward treating cancer, or whatever you want to treat,” explains Dr. Elsawy.

Researchers remove immune cells from the patient, and reengineer them with new genes that can better recognize and attack specific cancer cells, giving the immune system a significant boost.

The cells are sent to a lab in the United States, where they’re modified. It’s a process that takes about four weeks, before the altered cells are sent back to Halifax.

“This bag will have life in it, and then inject it, similar to a blood transfusion, into the patient’s vein,” adds the clinician. “And then, it starts attacking cancer, and it stays there in a form that we call a ‘living drug’.”

The ‘living drug’ also calls for other cells to help in the fight, and stays in the system, protecting the body for years to come.

In 2012, at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, then 5-year-old Emily Whitehead, was the first child in the world to receive CAR T-Cell immunotherapy. She’s been cancer-free since.

Right now, CAR T-Cell therapy is being used for blood cancers, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but Dr. Elsawy’s team sees endless options.

“It’s still in its infancy stage, but the future is so bright,” adds Dr. Elsawy. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Another hope is to soon modify the cells at a bio lab in Nova Scotia, instead of sending them to a lab in the United States, which takes time and money.

The work will be presented as part of at Dalhousie’s ‘Breakthrough Breakfast Series’, organized by the Faculty of Medicine, on June 18 at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

With files from CTV's Lisa Steacy and Jamie Morrison.

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