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Cancer therapy tested at UNC gets closer to approval

Posted July 12

— Advisors to the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday unanimously recommended approval for a new cancer therapy, which was shown to be successful in trials at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The treatment, being developed by Novartis, would be the first to use a patient's own immune cells to attack invading cancer cells.

At UNC, 60-year-old Ian Dale is one of those in remission after having his immune cells removed and returned, engineered to fight his anaplastic large cell lymphoma.

Ian Dale, cancer survivor

"We take one cell and turn it into a million cells, and then we infuse those million cells back into the patient that we got them from," Dale's doctor, Thomas Shea, said. "The major advantage of this is that your body is not going to reject its own cells."

Shea said a similar treatment had been successful for patients with leukemia.

"There are patients that are out almost five years now after this kind of treatment for leukemia who had failed all sorts of standard treatments and experimental treatments. They're still in remission and look like they're doing great," he said.

12-year-old Emily Whitehead is one of those success stories. In 2012, she was dying from one of the most common forms of leukemia called ALL.

After the experimental therapy, Emily is five years cancer-free.

"Leukemia has very good treatments for most patients, but for the patients it doesn't work, this is really game-changing," said Dr. Stephan Grupp of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The therapy from Novartis would not be used broadly. It's risky and can come with severe side effects.

Other similar therapies, like the treatment Dale got at UNC, are on the horizon.

Additional trials are in development at UNC for patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and other types of cancer.

People who want to learn more about those trials can contact Catherine Cheng at 919-966-4432 or catherine_cheng@med.unc.edu.

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