Some of the lymphoma patients now in remission had been so ill, they had sold their homes or possessions and were psychologically preparing to die. Figures recently presented at the American Society of Hematology in Orlando, Florida, revealed the success of the first-wave of NHS patients to be offered the CAR-T cancer therapy, named after the immune or T-cells it customises. The first cases were treated on the NHS a year ago.
At present, it is only approved for end-stage cancer, when doctors believe there is no other effective treatment.
Experts believe CAR-T could save thousands of lives a year. In June 2018, the Sunday Express revealed that the pioneering treatment would be offered on the NHS for adults with blood cancer – in a move that led the way across Europe.
Simon Stevens, then CEO of the NHS, had said it had the potential to be “one of the most innovative treatments that has ever been offered on the NHS”.
Since then, more than 200 patients have been put forward for the therapy at seven centres across the UK, including London’s Kings College Hospital and University College Hospital, as well as hospitals in Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle.
For this study, which saw 91 patients receive CAR-T, a third were in remission at three months and doctors believe many of these may be cured, meaning they are clear of their cancer.
Dr Andrea Kuhnl, a blood cancer expert at Kings College Hospital, who presented the study, said: “Most of the patients who benefited and in remission for longer than six months are extremely well, back at work and living a normal life.
“These patients would otherwise likely be dead now. You could watch tumours shrinking in just days while they are on the ward where no treatment had worked.”
Dr Karl Peggs, a leading expert in immunology at London’s University College Hospital and spokesman for the blood cancer charity Bloodwise, said: “This therapy is transformational and these results are very exciting. It is like a Lazarus treatment.”
CAR-T was given European approval in 2017, following global trials of around 2,000 patients.
Last year the NHS also made it available for children and young people up to age 25 with another blood cancer.
Early test results had suggested it would be a success – 75 terminally-ill children and young adults were treated. More than 80 per cent were free of disease after three months.
CAR-T is now being examined by the government drug watchdog NICE to treat other forms of blood cancer and experts believe that in the future it could be used to combat solid tumours too.
CAR-T is a therapy tailor-made for each patient using the body’s own cells. Firstly, T-cells are removed from the patient’s blood. They are frozen and sent to labs in the US. There, the white blood cells are genetically reprogrammed so that rather than killing bacteria and viruses, they seek out and destroy cancer.
A British lab is expected to open soon so that the process can be carried out in the UK.
Professor Antonio Pagliuca, of Kings College, said: “This is truly transformational. Hopefully, it will become available for more diseases in the future.”