Penn and Novartis will team on cancer research

Posted: August 6, 2012 at 4:14 pm

In an effort to get FDA approval for a new cancer therapy, pharmaceutical giant Novartis is teaming with the University of Pennsylvania and investing at least $20 million in a new center to expand the university's work.

The collaboration between Novartis and Penn is expected to start in the fall with a new research and development facility, the Center for Advanced Cellular Therapies, to be established within the next year. The center's location has not yet been determined but will most likely be on Penn's campus, university officials said Sunday.

The partnership comes after a Penn team led by immunologist and gene-therapy pioneer Carl June published work last year in two major journals showing that it had genetically engineered patients' T cells - the big guns of the immune system - to recognize and attack the malignant cells of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and then stand guard against the disease.

Although only three patients who had failed standard therapies were treated with the designer T cells, all three went into lengthy remission. Never before in published experiments had engineered T cells multiplied - and then persisted - enough to be so effective in patients.

David Strayer, a professor of pathology at Thomas Jefferson University who has long studied gene therapy, said the Penn and Novartis agreement comes "at a time when research funding is quite difficult to garner."

The partnership is an "encouraging sign" that large pharmaceutical companies are willing to team with medical schools.

"This could be the tip of the iceberg in pharmaceutical companies' having an interest in products being designed and developed by medical schools," Strayer said.

For all their sophistication, the designer T cells - with what scientists call chimeric antigen receptors (CAR) - remain experimental. The new T cells kill both healthy and cancerous B cells, so patients' supply can be permanently depleted.

B cells, which help fight viral and bacterial infections, are not indispensable to the body. But patients who lack B cells need regular intravenous doses of immunoglobulins to reduce their chances of infection.

In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, two oncologists, who called the results of the new study impressive, also warned that toxic effects, known and unknown, "could pose substantial problems."

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Penn and Novartis will team on cancer research

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