Photo of Bruce Johnson

From WBUR-FM; Boston’s NPR news station

As 2017 and our series, “This Moment In Cancer,” draw to a close, I asked a handful of local experts: What was the biggest cancer news of the year?

They all said roughly the same thing.

• “That would have to be CAR-T cells, hands down,” replied Mara Bloom, director of the cancer center at Massachusetts General Hospital. “This is a breakthrough therapy and patients — all of us here at Mass. General — are really excited about it.”

• “2017 saw two different CAR-T therapies approved,” answered Dr. Bruce Johnson of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, current president of the 45,000-member American Society of Clinical Oncology. More broadly, he said, the biggest cancer news is that immunotherapy — treatments that harness a patient’s own immune system, including CAR-T — have “come of age.'”

• The advent of CAR-T therapies as “the first gene and cellular therapy for cancer” stands “head and shoulders” above other developments in 2017, said Dr. Glenn Dranoff of Novartis, which makes one of the two CAR-T treatments approved this year.

The next question, for all non-specialists, is naturally “What is CAR-T cell therapy, again?”

Reporter Karen Weintraub wrote a vivid story this year on CAR-T treatments that featured Judith Wilkins, a hairdresser in Woburn, who has a type of cancer called B-cell lymphoma. Wilkins compares CAR-T cells to the old ‘Pac-Man’ computer game: “It’s like a Pac-man in my body,” she said. “The cells just cruise through your blood and identify the bad B cell and just eats it.”

Only a few thousand people can benefit from CAR-T treatments at this point, and right now, they only work against blood cancers, not solid tumors. But this is looking like only the beginning for CAR-T cell therapy, and more broadly, cancer treatments that use the patient’s own cells.

The downsides: Some patients get serious side effects that land them in intensive care units. And the price tags are steep. The CAR-T treatments are heading upward toward half a million dollars: One is about $370,000 and one is $475,000.

On the other hand, these could be one-and-done treatments, Dr. Dranoff said, “where patients can get their own cells that have been genetically altered as a single treatment, and then achieve long-term benefits without requiring additional therapy.”

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