Many have asked me why did we leave St Louis, and what am I doing in Seattle. I’m going to take a moment to tell you exactly what I’m working on and why I felt it was important to make this transition. I’m going to geek out for a minute, so if you don’t like technical scientific stuff, fast forward.
So I decided to move all the way to Seattle, WA to work for an immunotheraphy cancer treating company called Juno. Juno was founded in 2013 by a researcher named Fred Hutchinson. He found that certain leukocytes (T-cells) could be modified to attack specific foreign antigens in a person body. This was a ground breaking research and would eventually develop the defining principles in producing investigational adoptive T-cell therapy. Juno recently went through an acquisition by a company called Celgene in 2017.
What is a t-cell? There a 2 classes of leukocytes (white blood cells) in the human body. Those that deal with innate immunity- these are non-specific and have no memory, and those that deal with adaptive immunity- these are specific and do have memory. There are effectively 5 different types of leukocytes: Neutrophils, Esinophils, Basophils, Macrophages (or monocytes), and Lymphocytes. The neutrophils, esinophils, basophils, and macrophages all fall in the innate immunity category. Lymphocytes are in the adaptive. Lymphocytes are responsible for the production of antibodies which target specific antigens present on pathogens. Lymphocytes are also involved in the destruction of virus-infected body cells (via cytotoxic T cells and natural killer cells). A good way to understand, the t-cell is like the superheroes of the body. They take a while to mobilize, but when they do, they are specially trained to target specific pathogens and destroy.
Fred Hutchinson found that a persons t-cells could be modified, using a viral vector, to target specific antigens related to specific cancer cells. By using a viral vector, we can change the genetic make up of a cells, and elicit a phenotypic response that produces specific proteins on the t-cell surface. This means that we can now manufacture a drug, on a cellular level, that not only uses a natural human response to foreign cells, but has a faster response time, and is much less invasive. Radiation and chemotherapy are effective, but they are very toxic, and for a person that is already weak and may be immuno-compromised, its not a very realistic treatment. With immunotheraphy, the toxicity is greatly reduced. The patient is not subjugated to come to multiple treatments and watch a bag of neon colored liquid pumped into their veins. Most patients see success with only ONE small injection!
See this short video for a quick visual presentation. CAR-T Theraphy
In my mind, this is the future of cancer medicine. The possibilities are limitless. All sort of cancers can be targeted given the correct viral vector. So many of us have been affected by cancer, and I think this technology will propel us to a cancer free future. Thats why we moved all the way up here!
Obviously, I only play a small role in the grand scheme of things. This is a highly regulated industry, and so there are many hands involved in making this work. I was hired as a manufacturing lead associate. I understand cGMP (current good manufacturing practices), so my job is to help the newbies (recent grads) understand GMP as it relates to lab practices, and batch record execution. Its a step down in title from my last position, but my goals and responsibilities have not changed.
Side Effects and Cost
With any treatment, there are some side effects. When a CAR T-cell finds a cancer cell and binds to it, it releases cytokine. Cytokines are proteins involved in cell signaling. They are released at different stages of the cell’s life. Too much of this can sometimes cause issues in the patient. Cytokine release syndrome can occur when too much is released and the patient has a negative response which can including fever, nausea, low blood pressure, rapid heart beat, trouble breathing, and can be life threatening. This is rare and does not happen in most patients.
Since this technology is new, it is still very expensive. A single treatment (which is all that is often needed) can range from $300K-$500K! Because of the staggering cost, most insurance providers will not cover. I suspect as time goes on, and the procedures are optimized, cost will go down and insurance company will begin to cover. Unfortunately, most individuals who really need this, are currently priced out. It shameful that big pharma controls healthcare- but thats none of my business I guess…..
Im not able to say a whole lot about Seattle just yet. The jury is still out. What I will say is that it beautiful here!
Questions?? Let me know in the comments!