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Researchers in the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy harvest T cells in the state-of–the-art Good Manufacturing Practice Facility.

In 2004, New Jersey native Subha Barry received devastating news that her lymphoma had recurred yet again—for the fourth time. Diagnosed in 1997 with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, the mother of two young children already had been through multiple rounds of aggressive chemotherapy and an autologous stem-cell transplant to treat the disease but only experienced short-term remissions before the cancer recurred again.

A recommendation from her New Jersey oncologist to inquire about a unique investigational study using immunotherapy conducted by researchers at the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital and Houston Methodist Hospital set in motion her road to an apparent cure of the disease.

The CAGT team was able to unlock the mystery of her recurring disease. The uncontrolled growth of Barry’s cancer cells was driven by the Epstein Barr Virus, but the cancer cloaked itself from the immune system and chemotherapy by secreting a growth factor called TGF-β that allowed the tumor to resist treatment and the cancer to recur. Ultimately, her immune system didn’t have the necessary tools to recognize the virus and screen it out. 

Using Barry’s own T cells (immune cells that help the body fight infection by recognizing viruses and destroying cells infected with virus) obtained from her blood, researchers used novel technology developed by scientists in the CAGT state-of the-art Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facility to reprogram her T cells to recognize and attack the EBV virus in the cancer cells. There are only a handful of GMP facilities in the country capable of creating these kinds of therapies. Based on studies by researchers Drs. Cliona Rooney and Catherine Bollard, they also genetically modified the cells to encode resistance to TGF-β   providing the protection she needed to clear her body of the disease long term.

In 2014, Barry marked more than seven years in remission and is part of a long-term follow up study by the CAGT.

This study is just one of more than 20 clinical trials currently being conducted at the CAGT using T cell therapy to attack cancers of the immune system such as leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma as well as solid tumors such as neuroblastoma, nasopharyngeal cancer and sarcomas.

Grants Boost Funding

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Barry enjoys spending time with her husband of 28 years and children.

In February 2013, the Center received an $11.3 million renewal grant from the National Institutes of Health to advance the development of more effective and less toxic targeted T cell therapies for children and adults with cancer.

In October 2012, it received a five-year renewal as a prestigious National Cancer Institute Specialized Programs of Research Excellence, or SPORE, program for their lymphoma research.

In 2011, Baylor received a $5 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas to make the GMP facility capabilities available to other investigators and clinicians in Texas.

Led by Dr. Helen Heslop, current director of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy, and Dr. Malcolm Brenner, founding director, the team is working to bring T cell therapy out of the laboratory and to the patient safely and effectively.

They have had particular success recently using this approach against Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) positive cancers, the same virus associated with Barry’s disease.

Their work has led to an orphan drug designation (developmental drugs that are granted special status from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of rare diseases) for the treatment of post-transplant lymphomas, and the development of advanced stage studies of lymphoma and nasopharyngeal cancers.

Additionally, CAGT researchers are using T cell therapy to fight infections in patients who have received bone marrow transplants, often a life-saving treatment for hematologic cancers and disorders and other immune disorders.

In June 2014, the CACT published results from a new study in Science Translational Medicine that showed their specialized T cell therapy as an effective and safe approach to treat and prevent infections in patients who have received bone marrow transplants. The therapy had a 94 percent virological response rate in the study patients.