Scratching the Surface of the New York Times T-Cell Article


The wonderful New York Times story of young Emma Whitehead's remission from Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, which relates how doctors used the HIV virus to train her T-cells to attack her cancer, has patients and caregivers all over the world filled with hope.

This is, of course, the Holy Grail of cancer medicine—training the body's own immune system to recognize cancer cells as foreign pathogens to be killed.

There are several things from the Times piece that caught my attention and are worth exploring further.

Sample Size

On the not-so-bright-side, Emma is one patient. A few others with different cancers are in remission as well. But, in all, the data represent less than 10 people. Until doctors can explain with some degree of confidence why this treatment failed in some but succeeded in others, it's a complete unknown.

Tens of thousands of people die every year from pancreatic cancer, but a handful with this dreadful disease are cured. Both groups got the same treatment. Nobody can say why a few patients make it, but you often find that those few patients serve as living representatives of an answer for everyone when in reality they are the exception and not the rule.

The Benefit of Being Young

Far and away the greatest advances in cancer survival rates come from children with blood cancers. Emma falls into this group. Why have children done so well? Hard to know for sure, but the human body has more going for it when it's still growing than when it has begun to degenerate.

Translating this Treatment to Other Cancers

The Times article says:

"Researchers say the same approach, reprogramming the patient’s immune system, may also eventually be used against tumors like breast and prostate cancer."

Solid tumor cancers and blood cancers are related in name only. There is a massive divide between these two. Therapeutic cancer vaccines—which do the exact same thing that this treatment does—do not work with any reasonable efficacy against solid tumor cancers. Look at the disaster that is Provenge®.


Why am I not surprised to see that Novartis (which has committed $20 million towards an immune-response cancer treatment research center) president Herve Hoppenot elbowed his way into the Times piece? The fact that the company is "building a research center… to bring the treatment to market" should impress absolutely no one. They've lost more than that under the sofa cushions in the executive lounge. This is PR for them now, and should anything come of it, they will use it to justify the high price tag they put on it.

Spending $20 million on a research center is NOT the same as spending $20 million on actual research and development of a potential product. Novartis knows that by the time this point becomes relevant it will have been forgotten.

The Mention of Gleevec

The newspaper of record got a little lazy when they cited Gleevec® as an example of a very expensive drug for a small patient population. Gleevec is only expensive because Novartis can get away with charging that much, not because it costs so much to make or because the company must recoup its loses.

Developing This Treatment

The Times also points out that because this treatment must be individually designed for each patient—and not merely put into a mass-produced pill—that it will invariably cost a lot of money and headaches to produce.

But this technology is exactly the kind of technology that Biovest is in the business of making. As much as I write about Biovest being a biopharmaceutical company that makes a therapeutic lymphoma vaccine, the reality is that Biovest began as–and still functions as– a technology company, and its lead technology product is AutovaxID™ (pictured above), a compact bioreactor that makes small patient-specific production batches of anything from therapeutic vaccines to monoclonal antibodies.

Stack these in a lab under the proper conditions, and that's your manufacturing facility.

For Starters

These points barely scratch the surface. But that's the most important thing here: if we have any hope of seeing this treatment benefit great numbers of cancer sufferers, we have to keep scratching at the surface to find out what's underneath.

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