The University of Pennsylvania today reached an important milestone in its alliance with Novartis as it unveiled plans for the construction of a first-of-its-kind Center for Advanced Cellular Therapeutics (CACT) on the Penn Medicine campus in Philadelphia. The CACT will become the epicenter for research using Chimeric Antigen Receptor technology (CAR), which enables a patient’s T cells to be reprogrammed outside of the body so when they are re-infused into the patient, the T cells have the ability to “hunt” and destroy the cancer cells. Clinical trials using this approach have made headlines around the world.
Plans for the 30,000-square foot facility cement the Penn-Novartis alliance, a marquee component of Penn’s efforts in translational sciences that expedite the development of novel therapies for diseases of all kinds. The collaboration was announced in August 2012, when the two organizations entered an exclusive global research and licensing agreement to further study and commercialize novel CAR therapies.
The CACT, which will be funded in part through a $20 million investment from Novartis, will be devoted to the discovery, development and manufacturing of these personalized cellular cancer therapies, through a joint research and development program led by scientists and clinicians from Penn and Novartis.
“The past five years have been a time of explosive, exciting progress in the field of cancer cellular therapy,” said Carl H. June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor of Immunotherapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine and director of Translational Research in Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. “The results we’ve seen among the leukemia patients we’ve treated using our ‘hunter’ cells have accelerated our expectations for the potential of these new therapies. Today, many of those brave patients are thriving, and through our work in the CACT, we hope to offer that chance to patients with many other types of cancers.” The CACT will be constructed as part of the master building plan for the rear of the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine on Penn Medicine’s University City campus, atop of the 8-story Jordan Medical Education Center and South Pavilion Extension, which are currently under construction. The Center for Advanced Cellular Therapeutics will adjoin the existing cancer therapeutics floor in the Smilow Center for Translational Research, allowing it to be fully integrated with Penn Medicine’s research and clinical operations. The Center is expected to employ 100 highly specialized professionals in this burgeoning biomedical field.
The new facility, slated for completion in 2016, will house technologically advanced rooms where patients’ own immune cells will be reprogramed to fight tumors, roughly doubling Penn’s capacity to investigate new uses for this cellular therapy technology and treat patients in clinical trials for a broad range of cancers. Functions of the space will include vaccine development, assay development and correlative studies of blood and other biospecimens to examine how trial participants respond to the therapies they receive.
“We are fortunate to live in an era when fundamental discovery rapidly can become a therapeutic. Harnessing of the body’s immune system to treat cancers, as so dramatically shown with CAR T cell therapies, is the culmination of years of dedicated research,” said Mark Fishman, President of the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research. “The number of opportunities to treat heretofore lethal diseases now is legion. This new joint center is testimony to the power that comes from merging academic discovery directly to the generation of new medicines.” In July 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration awarded its Breakthrough Therapy designation to the Penn-developed CTL019, an investigational CAR therapy for the treatment of relapsed and refractory adult and pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). The designation followed new results presented during the American Society of Hematology’s annual meeting in December 2013, when June’s team announced data from a study of nearly 60 patients with advanced blood cancers that had stopped responding to conventional treatments. The researchers reported that the reprogrammed hunter cells produced durable remissions, persisting in patients’ bodies for more than three years in patients who had relapsed/refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Among children and adults with relapsed/refractory acute lymphoblastic leukemia – a fast-moving blood cancer that is especially deadly among patients who relapse after undergoing first-line therapies – 89 percent of trial participants’ cancers were put into remission within just a few weeks of receiving the new cells.
Other leaders of this clinical research at Penn include David Porter, MD, the Jodi Fisher Horowitz Professor in Leukemia Care Excellence and director of Blood and Marrow Transplantation in the Abramson Cancer Center, and Noelle Frey, MD, MSCE, an assistant professor of Medicine in the Abramson Cancer Center. The pediatric clinical trials are led by Stephan Grupp, MD, PhD, the Yetta Deitch Novotny Professor of Pediatrics and director of Translational Research in the Center for Childhood Cancer Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Bruce Levine, PhD, the Barbara and Edward Netter Professor in Cancer Gene Therapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, directs Penn’s Clinical Cell and Vaccine Production Facility.