CAR T immunotherapies are all the rage in the medical community, reprogramming a patient’s immune system to fight cancer. For some patients, they’ve produced near-miraculous recoveries, and they could be a huge breakthrough in cancer treatment.
The business community is taking note as well: Kite Pharma, a biotech company developing these therapies, announced a deal to be acquired for $11.9 billion on Monday, sending stock prices of Seattle immunotherapy developer Juno Therapeutics skyrocketing.
But there are still giant pitfalls to using the therapies on a large scale because they are incredibly complex and expensive to produce. Researchers from Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center are taking the problem head-on with new “hit-and-run” gene editing technology.
In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications, researchers led by Dr. Matthias Stephan reported they have developed a nanoparticle delivery system that can temporarily alter cells so they are able to fight cancer and other diseases.
The best part? The treatment is a powder that just needs to be mixed with water to activate — and even better, it could be an essential breakthrough in making cutting-edge medical technology affordable for patients.
Stephan told GeekWire in a previous piece on the technology that his goal is to make immunotherapy so easy to access that it replaces chemotherapy as the front-line treatment for cancer.
“What I envision is like the Walgreens flu shot scenario, or you go to your doctor and you get hepatitis B shot,” he said at the time. “You go there every Friday, and that’s it.”
“We realized in order to outcompete chemotherapy, we have to design something that is at least as affordable and can be manufactured at large scale by one biotech company and shipped out to local infusion centers,” Stephan said. At the moment, CAR T cell therapies must be made individually for each patient in specialized labs.
Here’s how the new tech works: The nanoparticles designed by Stephan and his team act like shipping containers for bundles of mRNA, the molecules that tell cells how to build disease-fighting proteins. The nanoparticles also have molecules attached to the outside to help them find the right kind of cells, like a shipping label on a package.
When the mRNA is delivered to the cell, it prompts the cell to grow disease-fighting features, like the chimeric antigen receptor in CAR T cells that help them identify and kill cancer. Researchers said the technology could potentially be used to develop treatments for HIV, diabetes and other immune-related diseases.
In the short run, the tech could help researchers discover new treatments and therapies in the lab. It could one day be used in hospitals and clinics around the world, but will first need to undergo extensive clinical trials to ensure the tech is effective and safe to use in humans.