CLEVELAND — It's no secret we live in a medical mecca of sorts. People come to Northeast Ohio from all over the world to access our facilities.
But now, University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center has opened a rare type of laboratory not found in many places. It's a lab that may provide the next big breakthrough in cancer research and bring some of the brightest minds to Northeast Ohio.
It’s called the Wesley Center for Immunotherapy at the UH Seidman Cancer Center. It made the existing lab three times bigger and 3News got an exclusive tour of the high tech parts before the scientists moved in to work.
For decades, UH Seidman Cancer Center has led the way in cutting-edge immunotherapy research and has been doing cellular therapy trials since 1995. The existing lab opened in 2005 as part of the Case Western Reserve National Center for Regenerative Medicine consortium, which includes UH.
Since then, the Cellular Therapy Lab has manufactured 439 cellular products for UH and other hospitals in the region and nationally, treating 134 patients with immunotherapy clinical trials.
UH currently has many clinical trials open at the cell therapy facility which generates CAR T, NK cell and other cell-based therapies.
“There are very few institutions around the country that have the setup as we do here at UH Seidman Cancer Center, so we are really well placed to contribute to this groundbreaking novel research,” said Koen van Besien, MD, PhD, UH Seidman Cancer Center Hematology Chief and Director of Wesley Center for Immunotherapy.
They've already started. UH researchers invented a faster way to deliver what's called CAR T-cell cancer therapy for lymphoma, where the patient’s own cells attack their cancer, with a little help.
Immune system T-cells are collected from the patient's blood and brought into the lab to be re-engineered to fight the patient's specific cancer.
This process typically takes about a month and unfortunately many patients don't have time to wait.
“We have brought that production time down to about a day or two, plus the time to required to run the tests to release the cells back to the patient takes us down to less than a week to get those cells ready,” Dr. van Besien said.
The clinical trial is underway, and if all goes well, this method may save countless lives. But that's just one potential breakthrough. The lab itself may draw the nation's best minds.
“I think this will be a great opportunity to bring great scientists here because they're all hoping to get the opportunity to test their new ideas,” Dr. van Besien said.
Another draw is the man leading the lab. Dr. van Biesen is internationally renowned for his cancer research and innovation.
Recently he cured a patient of both leukemia and HIV using umbilical cord stem cells and half-matched cells from a related donor. A method he helped create.
Another unique aspect of this lab isn't found in many places: the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) is an ultra-sterile certified environment.
Inside are the labs where scientists will create medical miracles.
“It’s where we are able to create cells that are of a quality that can be used for treatment of patients that is quite unique in the region and even in the state. We can bring good ideas right from the lab to the clinic and treat patients with life-threatening diseases,” Dr. van Biesen said. “This is really a laboratory of hope, of discovery that will change the way cancer is treated and perhaps take medical science in Cleveland further than it’s ever been.”
The goal is to improve outcomes for many types of cancers and even cure some of them. The challenge will then be bringing these treatments to everyone in need.
Right now there are six FDA-approved products for CAR T-cell immunotherapy. All of them are for what are called B-cell malignancies. They’re for types of blood cancers such as certain types of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, certain types of myelomas and childhood leukemia.
Often these treatments are effective when nothing else works, but it’s not perfect. That’s why the lab and the research is so critical.
If the new therapies work in a clinical trial, the research would then likely be taken over by a pharmaceutical company. Dr. van Biesen says the role of academia is to do the early trials.
There’s a large number of small biotech companies, including many in Cleveland, that would take these ideas and license them. The reason is because they typically have more funding to do larger trials which are quite expensive.