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Access to new blood cancer treatment expanded in B.C.

CAR-T therapy previously only available through clinical trial, now offered in several hospitals

B.C. is opening up access to a cutting edge blood cancer treatment, after years of it only being available through clinical trials or by travelling out of province.

Beginning this month, British Columbians battling some advanced types of leukemia and lymphomas will have the option of undergoing Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-Cell (CAR-T) therapy. The treatment works by extracting a patient’s white blood cells, genetically engineering them to recognize and fight cancer and then infusing them back into the patient’s bloodstream.

The entire process takes about 12 days.

CAR-T therapy has been available in B.C. on a limited basis through clinical trials since 2020, but BC Cancer Chief Medical Officer Kim Chi said Sunday (March 10) that some patients were having to travel to other parts of Canada to receive it. Going forward, it will be offered to adults at Vancouver General Hospital and children at the BC Children’s Hospital.

BC Cancer estimates 20 adults and five children or youth will be treated a year, to start.

Chi said expanding access to cancer care is crucial as B.C.’s population grows and ages. While around 33,000 British Columbians were diagnosed with cancer in 2023, about 45,000 are expected to get the same news in 2034.

So far, CAR-T therapy clinical trials show promising results. The first one run by BC Cancer included 30 patients, 13 of which were reported cancer free and two of which partially responded to the treatment. Five others continued to experience a progression of their cancer and nine patients passed away.

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

Speaking at Sunday morning’s announcement, B.C. mother MJ Asrat said CAR-T therapy saved her child’s life. Her son Hugo was diagnosed with leukemia at age two and underwent 3.5 years of chemotherapy. He was declared cancer free for a brief six months before it was discovered again. It was then that they tried a clinical trial of CAR-T.

Asrat said within 13 days there was no trace of cancer left.

“He is embracing the joys of childhood once again.”

Funding for the expanded treatment is covered under the $270 million in cancer care dollars the province announced in its 2024 budget last month. The fresh funds are set to be spread over three years.

About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media.
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