A Food and Drug Administration panel opened a new era in medicine on Wednesday, unanimously recommending that the agency approve the first-ever treatment that genetically alters a patient’s own cells to fight cancer, transforming them into what scientists call “a living drug” that powerfully bolsters the immune system to shut down the disease.
As NYTimes reports, if the F.D.A. accepts the recommendation, which is likely, the treatment will be the first gene therapy ever to reach the market. Others are expected: Researchers and drug companies have been engaged in intense competition for decades to reach this milestone. Novartis is now poised to be the first. Its treatment is for a type of leukemia, and it is working on similar types of treatments in hundreds of patients for another form of the disease, as well as multiple myeloma and an aggressive brain tumor.
To use the technique, a separate treatment must be created for each patient — their cells removed at an approved medical center, frozen, shipped to a Novartis plant for thawing and processing, frozen again and shipped back to the treatment center.
A single dose of the resulting product has brought long remissions, and possibly cures, to scores of patients in studies who were facing death because every other treatment had failed. The panel recommended approving the treatment for B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia that has resisted treatment, or relapsed, in children and young adults aged 3 to 25.
One of those patients, Emily Whitehead, now 12 and the first child ever given the altered cells, was at the meeting of the panel with her parents to advocate for approval of the drug that saved her life. In 2012, as a 6-year-old, she was treated in a study at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Severe side effects — raging fever, crashing blood pressure, lung congestion — nearly killed her. But she emerged cancer free, and has remained so.
“We believe that when this treatment is approved it will save thousands of children’s lives around the world,” Emily’s father, Tom Whitehead, told the panel. “I hope that someday all of you on the advisory committee can tell your families for generations that you were part of the process that ended the use of toxic treatments like chemotherapy and radiation as standard treatment, and turned blood cancers into a treatable disease that even after relapse most people survive.”
The main evidence that Novartis presented to the F.D.A. came from a study of 63 patients who received the treatment from April 2015 to August 2016. Fifty-two of them, or 82.5 percent, went into remission — a high rate for such a severe disease. Eleven others died.
“It’s a new world, an exciting therapy,” said Dr. Gwen Nichols, the chief medical officer of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, which paid for some of the research that led to the treatment.
The next step, she said, will be to determine “what we can combine it with and is there a way to use it in the future to treat patients with less disease, so that the immune system is in better shape and really able to fight.” She added, “This is the beginning of something big.”
At the meeting, the panel of experts did not question the lifesaving potential of the treatment in hopeless cases. But they raised concerns about potentially life-threatening side effects — short-term worries about acute reactions like those Emily experienced, and longer-term worries about whether the infused cells could, years later, cause secondary cancers or other problems.
Oncologists have learned how to treat the acute reactions, and so far, no long-term problems have been detected, but not enough time has passed to rule them out.
Patients who receive the treatment will be entered in a registry and tracked for 15 years.
Treatments involving live cells, known as “biologics” are generally far more difficult to manufacture than standard drugs, and the panelists also expressed concerns about whether Novartis would be able to produce consistent treatments and maintain quality control as it scaled up its operation.