T-cells are part of the immune system that normally kill infected cells. They can be taken from a person’s blood sample, grown in the laboratory and ‘re-programmed’ to recognise and kill cancer cells. This is achieved by introducing a gene for an artificial protein called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR).
Early clinical trials in the US have shown that CAR T-cells could be highly effective in treating patients with leukemias and lymphomas that have not responded to standard anti-cancer treatments.
The project is supported by the government’s National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and led by University College London (UCL) and University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH).
Healthcare investment company Syncona has invested the money into a UCL ‘spin out’ company, Autolus. It was set up to develop and commercialise next-generation engineered T-cell therapies for haematological and solid tumours. Autolus will now be taking forward the research in collaboration with UCL with the aim of progressing to clinical trials.
The deal follows investment of over £100 million into experimental research at UCL and UCLH under the government’s NIHR Biomedical Research Centre funding scheme,which provides research facilities and expertise in the NHS. It also reflects research looking at novel treatments that enable the patient’s own immune system to fight the primary cancer and may also help the body to better fight secondary cancers.
Life Sciences Minister George Freeman said:
This investment highlights the fact that the UK is at the forefront of financing innovative biomedical treatments that have the potential to give real patient benefits. In the wider context, UK companies raised £734 million of capital in the first half of 2014, surpassing the £483 million raised in the whole of 2013.
It is early days, but this significant £30 million commitment could revolutionise cancer treatments and is a huge boost for the NHS. This builds on the investment made through the National Institute for Health Research which positions the UK as a global leader in research.
The new therapies are based on the work of Dr Martin Pule, a clinical haematologist at the UCL Cancer Institute and consultant at UCLH. Dr Pule said:
Our research is the culmination of many years work which would not have been possible without public and charitable funding. This new investment means we now have the resources to accelerate development and clinical testing of these exciting technologies. We will also be able to access the considerable talent and knowledge available in the UK industrial biotechnology and biopharmaceutical sectors.
The network will be supported by Cancer Research UK’s Centre for Drug Development. Dr Nigel Blackburn, Cancer Research UK’s director of drug development, said:
We are delighted to be able to work with UCL and its partner hospitals. This announcement provides a great example of how charitable funding married with world class expertise in experimental medicine can enable rapid translation of new scientific discoveries into benefits for cancer patients.