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HKUMed team logs successful use of CAR-T cell tech

Image Credits: HKU, Press Release

The Department of Medicine of LKS Faculty of Medicine, The University of Hong Kong (HKUMed) has successfully performed Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell (CAR-T cell) treatment for a patient with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, who relapsed after bone marrow transplantation and was refractory to salvage chemotherapy.

This is the first time that CAR-T cell therapy has been used outside clinical trials to treat blood cancer patients in Hong Kong. The treatment was carried out by the Division of Haematology, Medical Oncology and Haemopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation, Department of Medicine, HKUMed and Queen Mary Hospital.

The team performed the first-ever CAR-T cell therapy in Hong Kong (for a lymphoma patient) in May 2020. Since then, Queen Mary Hospital is not only the first but also the only centre in Hong Kong to perform CAR-T cell treatment for patients with blood cancers. The team believes this therapy has set the new direction for cancer treatment in future, which is expected to benefit more patients in similar conditions.

Living Medicine: CAR-T are genetically modified T cells to target and destroy cancers

In general, the curative effect of conventional therapy for recurrent acute lymphocytic leukaemia or lymphoma is far from satisfactory. Repeated chemotherapy induces limited response. A few patients may be cured by haematopoietic stem cell transplantation, but there are transplant-related toxicities. Some patients may still relapse after the transplant.

In recent years, the medical profession has been researching immunotherapies with longer-lasting curative effects, including CAR-T cell therapy, which kill cancer cells through the patient’s immune system. Under CAR-T cell therapy, normal T cells are harvested from the patient.

A ‘chimeric antigen receptor’, which allows T cells to identify a specific type of cancer cells, is added to these T cells ex vivo. Genetically modified CAR-T cells are then re-infused to the patient so that they can locate the cancer cells and eliminate them. This is the latest technology of cell therapy.

CAR-T cell therapy effectively improves the chance of cure. According to the statistics of the Hong Kong Cancer Information and Statistics Center of the Hospital Authority, more than 100 patients are suitable for this treatment each year.

CAR-T cell therapy: a new direction for cancer treatment in the future

Tisagenlecleucel is the first and currently the only CAR-T cell therapy approved in Hong Kong, which was registered with Hong Kong’s Department of Health under the Pharmacy and Poisons Ordinance on 5 March 2020.  Specifically, the treatment applies to the following:

  • Paediatric and young adult patients up to 25 years of age with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) that is refractory, in relapse post-transplantation or in second or later relapse.
  • Adult patients with relapsed or refractory diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) after two or more lines of systemic therapy.

CAR-T cell therapy may have serious complications, such as cytokine release syndrome and immune effector cell-related neurotoxicity syndrome. The situation is very similar to the immune complications seen in allogeneic haematopoietic stem cell transplantation. Therefore, medical institutions providing CAR-T cell therapy must have solid experience in haematopoietic stem cell transplantation.

Tisagenlecleucel also involves complicated procedures, including:

1)    Collect the patient’s lymphocytes
2)    Store cells frozen in liquid nitrogen
3)    Ship cells overseas for genetic modification
4)    Transport back to Hong Kong for re-infusion

The treatment is limited to designated medical institutions.  To ensure the safety of the transportation process, each cell product is carefully marked with an “identity chain” to facilitate tracking of the patient. Queen Mary Hospital is the first and the only centre in Hong Kong to perform CAR-T cell treatment for patients with blood cancers.

CAR-T cell therapy for lymphoma

Tisagenlecleucel is also indicated for the treatment of relapsed/refractory B-cell lymphoma. The Division of Haematology, Medical Oncology and Haemopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation, Department of Medicine, HKUMed and Queen Mary Hospital is currently conducting a clinical trial of tisagenlecleucel in B-cell lymphoma, and seven patients so far have been recruited into this phase 3 study.

To benefit more patients, the international medical community has developed a variety of CAR-T cell therapies to deal with more cancers. For example, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two other CAR-T cell therapies – Axicabtagene Ciloleucel for relapsed or refractory large B-cell lymphoma, and Brexucabtagene Autoleucel to treat relapsed or refractory “mantle cell lymphoma”.

About the clinical team

The Division of Haematology, Medical Oncology and Haemopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation, Department of Medicine, HKUMed and Queen Mary Hospital is the largest haematology team in Hong Kong. It provides treatment for patients with benign and malignant blood diseases and operates the only adult allogeneic haematopoietic stem cell transplantation centre in Hong Kong. It is currently the only team in Hong Kong that is experienced in both allogeneic haematopoietic stem cell transplantation and CAR-T cell therapy.

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