"Our research focuses on developing more affordable and accessible CAR T-cell therapies," says NRC researcher Scott McComb, project lead for CAR-T development for blood cancers at the NRC. "There's no point in making fancy new therapies if Canadians can't access them."
He explains that the NRC is working with a consortium of Canadian researchers to establish a range of biomanufacturing facilities across Canada for manufacturing clinical CAR-T products under good manufacturing practices. Having the ability to deliver these types of therapies at Canadian hospitals and clinics could provide an attractive alternative for more direct and less expensive delivery of these therapies once they're approved. Each facility would be able to extract and modify patient T-cells on site to design personalized CAR T-cell therapies.
A key driver behind the success of this research is the NRC's Cell and Gene Therapy Challenge program, led by Risini Weeratna. This mission-oriented program provides targeted funding for investigators across Canada to collaborate with NRC scientists to achieve the ambitious goal of creating accessible and affordable cell and gene therapies for Canadians.
"The CGT program has had a revolutionary impact on our ability to deliver these therapies in Canada," says Weeratna. "We're not only innovating, but also helping to establish a whole ecosystem around cell and gene therapy." This means that, if the new therapies prove to be safe and effective in clinical trials, they will be more widely available across Canada without the high cost of the CAR T-cell therapies currently on the market.
Building on history
In the realm of biotherapeutics, the NRC has a long history of identifying new antigen and antibody sequences, modifying them and figuring out how to turn them into vaccine and/or antibody-based medicines. In the early 1980s, NRC researchers also developed the first meningitis vaccine, which helped to save countless lives by preventing the serious and often fatal bacterial disease. Later, the NRC created the world's first synthetic human proinsulin gene, which today is the basis for the medication used by almost all insulin-dependent diabetics.
"We fused the collective NRC knowledge of fundamental biology of immune cells and our expertise in the production of antibodies to create this new made-in-Canada CAR T-cell therapy," says McComb. "What we learn from our research into leukemia and lymphoma will also help us build breakthrough therapies for other diseases such as brain, pancreatic and lung cancer."
The NRC's leading role in bringing CAR T-cell therapy from the lab to the clinic builds on that leadership. Risini Weeratna sums up the exciting future ahead for the NRC's work in CAR T-cell therapies: "With our collaborative network of clinical and industry partners, we can continue the tradition of putting all the critical elements together to effect real change in how we treat cancer in Canada."