Loyola University Chicago and Loyola Medicine have announced plans to become the first Chicago center to produce cancer-fighting CAR-T cells to treat leukemia and lymphoma.

CAR-T cell therapy has been shown to be remarkably effective in treating cancer patients who have failed standard treatments, but it is expensive and can cause severe side effects. Loyola is planning on producing a more purified CAR-T cell product that potentially could reduce toxicities and costs.

CAR-T therapy

The Leukemia Research Foundation is supporting the research with a lead gift of $250,000 to Loyola University Chicago. CAR-T therapy harnesses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. In the Loyola clinical trial, T-cells will be collected from the patient and sent to Loyola's clean lab.

There, the cells will be genetically modified to target and kill cancer cells. Millions of these engineered T-cells then will be infused back into the patient. (T-cells play an essential role in the immune system.

They flow through the bloodstream to fight viruses, bacteria, and other foreign invaders. CAR-T is short for chimeric antigen receptor T-cell. Loyola is among the Chicago centers that have treated patients with CAR-T cells developed by pharmaceutical companies.

Now Loyola will be the first Chicago center to produce its CAR-T cells. The cells will be made available to other centers in Chicago and beyond once initial testing is completed.

"We are working to develop a purer CAR-T product that would lessen toxic side effects and potentially increase the number of eligible patients," said Patrick Stiff, MD, Loyola's director of hematology/oncology research and division director of hematology/oncology. Dr. Stiff is directing Loyola's CAR-T research, along with Michael Nishimura, Ph.D., program director of immunologic therapies.

Kevin Radelet, executive director of the Leukemia Research Foundation, said supporting CAR-T research "directly aligns with our mission of funding medical research and enriching the quality of life of those touched by these diseases."

The Leukemia Research Foundation, based in Northfield, Illinois, has awarded $30 million in research grants to more than 500 researchers and more than 200 research institutions in 13 countries. 

The Foundation also is providing $1.67 million in "New Investigator" grants to 12 young researchers during the 2018-2019 fiscal year. Loyola University Medical Center participated in a groundbreaking clinical trial of CAR-T therapy published in the New England Journal of Medicine.