Biological cancer therapy to make Canadian debut in Ottawa during next two weeks, researcher tells fundraiser crowd

FINCH — An Ottawa patient will shortly become the first Canadian to be treated inside Canada with an emerging cancer-fighting technology that involves re-engineering the body’s own immune defences.

During an address to a cancer fundraiser here on Friday night, Dr. John Bell of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research delivered that hopeful news and touted “biological therapy” as the eventual successor to chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

“We’ve been using the same treatments for about 50 years,” Dr. Bell observed. Even though many patients do better today than they did years ago, he pointed out that chemo and radiation still “are not selective enough, so they attack not only the cancer but also our normal tissues.”

Dr. Bell cited the upcoming medical milestone in the Nation’s Capital — involving a female leukemia patient who will be treated with CAR-T cell therapy at the Ottawa Hospital in the “next couple of weeks”  — as another positive sign that years of cancer research and fundraising are finally yielding groundbreaking benefits for cancer patients.

“In the last 10 years, there has really been a revolution in cancer therapy,” he remarked of biological therapies, CAR-T being one of them. “We’re not there yet, but I can tell you it’s like nothing I’ve seen before in my entire career,” added the veteran researcher of 35 years.

Eighty percent of patients stricken by a nearly always fatal type of  leukemia are cured by the new therapy, he reported. Sixty percent of patients diagnosed with an otherwise fatal type of melanoma are similarly cured. While work remains to be done programming the immune system to attack other cancers, researchers now know it should be possible because of these early successes.

“So it’s an amazing change in how we do things,” the doctor said.

Dr. Bell addresses the audience in Finch, below.

However, CAR-T cell therapy has until now only been offered in the U.S., with provinces like Ontario paying about $1-million per patient to send Canadians south for treatment. The upcoming Ottawa case represents the first time the Canadian healthcare system will deploy the technique at home. And it’s part of a biological therapy “system” linking Canada’s medical community “across the country, and that’s going to be a game changer for many people,” he asserted.

It all represents, the doctor said, “really exciting times” in cancer research.

Through the decades in their labs, Bell and his “brilliant colleagues” around the globe have been challenged by the reality that cancer is incredibly complicated. Not only are there multiple types of cancer, each cancer is unique to the person that has it.

“The reason why it is so hard to treat is that cancer is a disease of our own genetic information,” he explained. “It’s also why our current therapies [chemo and radiation] aren’t good enough.”

“We’ve been saying for years, we’ve got to get something better than that. Let’s make a therapy that only attacks the cancer and leaves the rest of your body alone.”

The misery of cancer also creates “huge sociological impacts,” he pointed out, noting that a diagnosis of cancer is the number one cause of personal bankruptcy in Canada.

Dr. Bell was keynote speaker at the 6th annual Sisters for Life – Ladies Gala in Finch, located in North Stormont Township, southeast of Ottawa. The event lit up the village’s community hall as hundreds of women attended the fundraiser — split 50-50 between the Canadian Cancer Society and Winchester District Memorial Hospital.

See more of the proceedings, below.

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