India plans cell therapy treatment for cancer

Indian pharmaceutical companies and start-ups may soon offer cell therapy-based treatment for cancer at nearly one tenth of the cost in the USA. Immuneel Therapeutics, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, Shenzhen Pregene Biopharma; and ImmunoACT, are among firms working to bring CAR T-cell therapy for cancer, especially blood cancers, to India within the next two years.

Treating leukaemia, a cancer of the blood cells, with CAR T-cell therapy involves high costs of nearly US$1 million, if conducted in the USA.  India is now seeking to be the go-to country for cell therapy-based cancer treatment.

CAR T-cells, or chimeric antigen receptor T-cells, are genetically engineered to produce artificial T-cell receptors. The immune system is the body’s natural defence against infections and old or abnormal cells (including those that make up cancer). Cellular immunotherapy strategies use the patient’s immune cells, which are then genetically altered outside the body and re-infused into it.

Since live cells are re-engineered to fight the disease, cellular immunotherapies are considered living drugs. A living drug is not a pill, but a process that is personalised to the needs of the patient.

More than one million new cases of cancer are diagnosed every year in India. Despite a lower incidence of cancer, India suffers a higher mortality rate. Without access to advanced interventions, this number is estimated to rise to over 1.3 million by 2040.

Immuneel Therapeutics argues that CAR T-cell therapy for cancer like leukaemia has the potential to reduce the three-year conventional treatment (using oral drugs, chemotherapy, bone marrow transplant) to just three weeks.

The company is doing trials in India, Spain and other European countries. It states that therapy costs US$450,000 in the USA but with before and after care for the patient, the cumulative cost comes to US$800,000 to $900,000. Immuneel aims to offer it in India at one tenth of the USA costs.

Dr Reddy’s Laboratories has licensed technology from Shenzhen Pregene Biopharma and is in the process of setting up a manufacturing facility. The product is to go into clinical trials next year.

ImmunoACT is also working on two more cancer products using this technology, one for neuroblastoma and another for brain cancer. The technology has no limitations and can be adapted for various kinds of cancers.

Globally, 300 clinical trials of CAR T-cell therapies have been approved by drug regulatory agencies spanning Europe, the US, Israel, China, and Australia.