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Therapy that modifies patients’ own blood cells to fight advanced cancers being tested

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Scientists have taken a step forward in efforts to harness patients’ own white blood cells to fight deadly cancers. A pilot study, funded by Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care, in partnership with New York Blood Center (NYBC), has demonstrated that white blood cells can be removed, genetically modified and reinserted into cancer patients.

This holds potential to fight cancers that standard therapy has failed to treat. The next step is to duplicate this finding in multiple patients. 

Montefiore holds the investigational new drug application from the FDA to test the safety and feasibility of the therapy. Working with the National Cancer Institute-designated Albert Einstein Cancer Center, the trial kicked off this summer. The goal of the pilot study is to enroll five patients and confirm the feasibility and safety of the therapy for solid tumors, such as breast cancer, sarcomas and lung cancer.

Eligibility for the trial requires highly specific criteria:

  • A hereditary marker, found in only 20 percent of Montefiore's patient population
  • Tumors expressing the NY ESO-1 protein, which is found in 30 percent of all solid tumors
  • Advanced metastatic cancer that has failed to respond to standard therapy

"We isolate a person's blood cells and grow them in the lab with a virus that inserts new DNA into the blood cells," said Amanda Marchiando, Ph.D., MPH, Cellular Therapy & Regenerative Medicine scientist at New York Blood Center. "This reprograms the cells to recognize the NY ESO-1 protein on a patient's tumors and attack it."

Once newly engineered cells are created in the NYBC, patients' bodies will be prepared for a cell transfusion. This will include one week of chemotherapy to wipe out many of the remaining white blood cells.

The clean slate allows the new and improved cells, which are delivered through an IV-bag in 20 minutes, to become the first in line to attack the cancer. Immunotherapy is also given to make the re-engineered cells even stronger.

"We are optimistic that this therapy could become a viable option for people with cancer who are running out of options," said principal investigator Ira Braunschweig, M.D., director of Stem Cell Transplantation at Montefiore.

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