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Made-in-B.C. T-cells yield promising results in early international cancer trials

Immunitherapy gains come as BC Cancer launches ambitious $500M campaign for research, accessibility

A Victoria team is playing a central role in developing a cancer therapy that shows a 90 per cent complete response rate for certain types of leukemia that are otherwise fatal, says a researcher at the Deeley Research Centre.

Immunotherapy is an approach for cancer treatment that uses the patient’s own immune system – getting it fired up to destroy cancer cells. It’s a path Brad Nelson started working in two decades ago, and the last five years have yielded impressive results globally.

“Twenty years ago, (immunotherapy) was very much a futuristic idea,” said Nelson, co-director of the centre based at BC Cancer adjacent to Royal Jubilee Hospital. “I’ve gone from being a bit on the fringes … to now doctors, nurses are delivering some types of therapy as standard of care for many cancers.”

Nelson first embarked on T-cell studies as an option to work alongside standard chemotherapy and radiation. Twenty years later, it’s working.

“This has been a global phenomenon with breakthroughs at centres around the world,” Nelson said.

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The ultimate goal is to develop safe, potent and cost-effective immunotherapies to battle a range of cancers.

One area of research using chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cells is showing significant signs of success. In the simplest of terms, they take a patient’s immune cells – in particular T-cells – and insert a gene that rewires them. Now hardwired to recognize the cancer, the genetically engineered cells go back into the patient’s blood stream and circulate.

“They’re now hardwired to – when they see a tumour cell – latch on and destroy it,” Nelson said.

In oncology terms, it’s still a recent development, but showing spectacular results in blood-based cancers, he added.

International clinical trials have shown (CAR) T-cells can achieve up to a 90 per cent complete response rate for certain types of leukemia that are otherwise fatal – the tumour goes away, it’s undetectable, Nelson explained.

The Victoria lab has a purpose-built clean room to manufacture the genetically engineered cells. With approvals, the team embarked on a patient trial with treatment taking place in Vancouver and Ottawa. The consortium has treated 60 patients on this trial and recently published results for the first 30 in a peer-reviewed international journal documenting the treatment is safe and effective, Nelson said.

“We’ve also figured out how to make it cost-effective.”

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Alongside success, the treatment rapidly became commercialized to tune of a $1 million treatment in the U.S.

“In Canada, we looked at those numbers and thought there’s just no way our health-care system can support those costs,” Nelson said. “In B.C. alone, there are about 100 patients a year that need this therapy.”

Along the way, they’ve created the next generation of cutting-edge clinical researchers

“Another accomplishment of the program is we’ve created this generation of highly trained, largely younger people who have these skills and great jobs in producing this very sophisticated cancer treatment and really setting B.C. up for the future.”

Julie Nielsen took on the role as leader of cell manufacturing for BC Cancer’s immunotherapy program about a year ago. She’s been at the agency for 15 years, lured there by the enthusiastic work of Nelson.

Early on, she was working with patient samples and got to talk to patients. Even though she couldn’t treat them, patients were interested in hearing about the work and its potential.

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“I’ve always loved being here and loved my job for a lot of reasons. Mainly the patient focus,” Nielsen said. “Now we’re really treating patients. I’ve talked to some of these people and heard their stories, and they’re just so grateful. It’s so inspiring.”

Both researchers are grateful to the community that helps fund the work. Beyond Belief is the latest ambitious BC Cancer Foundation campaign to raise $500 million with the goal of investing in research, technology and access. The BC Cancer Foundation raised $77.1 million for BC Cancer last year.

Victoria’s Deeley Research Centre was funded by the community through the BC Cancer Foundation and much of Nelson’s research has been made possible through community donations, said William Litchfield, executive director.

“This is an amazing example of how our community has invested to make a real difference in cancer care, and with our community’s continued support we will continue to make world-class breakthroughs,” Litchfield said.

Learn more about the campaign at

Brad Nelson is developing innovative immunotherapies for cancer at the Deeley Research Centre in Victoria. (Courtesy BC Cancer Foundation)

Christine van Reeuwyk

About the Author: Christine van Reeuwyk

Longtime journalist with the Greater Victoria news team.
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