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A gene therapy trial has reversed terminal blood cancer in a third of patients with chemorefractory aggressive B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). The trial used a method known as CAR-T therapy, where genetically modified cells are extracted from the patient’s own immune system. Data collected after six months revealed that the cancer had shrunk by at least half in 82 per cent of NHL patients.

One hundred and one patients with one of three types of NHL were treated with the therapy after other treatments had proven unsuccessful for them. Six months after a single treatment showed 36 percent of patients were in complete remission, while 41 per cent of patient’s had their tumours had shrink by at least half.

Dr. Fred Locke, co-lead of the study and an expert in blood cancer at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa described these results as “fantastic”. Kite Pharma is the US pharmaceutical company behind the treatment that consists of filtering immune T-cells from the blood of the patient as a means of creating a ‘living drug’. A gene is then used to modify the T cells, enabling them to identify tumour cells more easily. The cells are multiplied in the lab before being injected back into the patient. They then continue to multiply, enabling the patient’s immune system to locate and destroy the cancer cells.

Kite Pharma have claimed that no additional patients have died, since the three deaths that had been reported in December at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. This number of deaths is fewer than has previously seen in tests of CAR-T therapy elsewhere and these deaths were deemed unrelated to disease progression.Thirteen per cent of patients developed a serious immune system overreaction, 28 per cent were diagnosed with temporary neurological problems, and roughly one-third developed treatable blood count related issues, such as anaemia.

The average survival for such patients had been in the region of six months, however after nine months over half of the patients involved in the trial remain alive. The entire results of the trial are due to be presented at the American Association for Cancer Research conference, which will take place in April. Kite Pharma is planning on seeking approval for the treatment from the FDA by the end of this month, before doing the same in Europe at a later date this year.