A new approach to treating blood cancer just got a promising set of results

  • Researchers are looking for new ways to approach blood cancers.
  • One of those ways is a target called BCMA, short for “B-cell maturation antigen,” that’s integral to a cancer called multiple myeloma.
  • Interest in BCMA has been “building” according to industry experts, as companies like GSK and Bluebird Bio release more data on their experimental treatments.

Biotech companies are working to develop new treatments for hard-to-treat forms of blood cancer.

In particular, a set of experimental treatments is going after a target called B-cell maturation antigen. The protein is expressed primarily in patients with multiple myleoma, a form of blood cancer that affects plasma.

Interest in BCMA as a target for cancer treatments is “building,” Dr. Axel Hoos, senior vice president of oncology research and development at GlaxoSmithKline, told Business Insider. GSK is one of the companies developing treatments that go after BCMA. The interest in the target by other companies, including Bluebird Bio, which is taking a different approach to treating multiple myeloma, is a sign that the target is good, Hoos said.

In a phase 2 trial of 35 patients with multiple myeloma, GSK’s antibody-based treatment (that is, made of living cells) was able to get a 60% response rate to the treatment.

“BCMA as a target has clearly become the centrepiece of immuno-oncology,” Credit Suisse analysts wrote in a note Monday.

A space for cutting-edge cell therapies

BCMA as a target has also had success in the budding field of highly personalised cancer treatments known as CAR T-cell therapy (CAR is short for chimeric antigen receptor).

In a phase 1 trial of 18 patients conducted by the biotech company Bluebird Bio, 10 had a complete response (meaning the cancer had disappeared) to the one-time treatment after a median follow-up of 40 weeks.

Bluebird was up by more than 24% on Monday following the new data from GSK.

Cell therapies aren’t your run-of-the-mill treatments. Since the therapy is made from a person’s own immune system, the process can take about three weeks.

To start, a doctor removes some white blood cells, the part of our body’s immune system responsible for combatting infections and foreign substances, from a patient. In a healthy body, the immune system can recognise abnormal, cancerous cells, but for people with cancer, it doesn’t recognise that the cells are spreading.

Then the cells are taken to a manufacturing facility at which point the cells are reengineered to recognise cancer cells and wipe them out. Those reprogrammed cells are sent back and administered to the patient.

“Basically we sent a T cell in to attach to the myeloma cells, and then basically blow them up,” Bluebird CEO Nick Leschly told Business Insider in 2016.

Up next, Bluebird and its partner Celgene will have to see how the treatment works in larger, late-stage trials.

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