Clinical trials are under way into a new cancer therapy that will reduce the need for UAE patients to go overseas for treatment.
Car T-cell therapy, where stem cells are engineered to fight off cancer, is currently available at only a limited number of specialist hospitals in Europe, the USA and Israel.
Primarily suitable for the treatment of bone marrow and blood cancers, research into the therapy has been launched at the Abu Dhabi Stem Cells Centre (ADSCC) to bring the remedy to UAE hospitals.
The process extracts T cells – the bedrock of our immune systems – from a patient’s blood, which are then genetically altered in a lab.
A man-made receptor is added, called a chimeric antigen receptor, to improve the T-cells' ability to identity cancer cells and destroy them.
The upgraded Car T-cell is then injected into the patient’s blood so it can get to work in fighting off cancer cells.
“Cancer treatment continues to be one of the world’s most complex and challenging medical journeys,” said Dr Yendry Ventura Carmenate, an immunologist at ADSCC and principal investigator of the Car T-cell clinical trial.
"This emphasises the growing need for locally generated research and therapeutic innovations. Understanding the effect of Car T-cells among patients will be a long and laborious process, but it also represents an incredible chapter in the UAE’s history.
“It is placing it on the world map as a leader in medical innovation, research and development.”
The research is being completed in partnership with Miltenyi Biotec, a German bio-tech company.
Because of widespread research, more is being understood about the importance of T-cells and the role they play in the body’s natural defences.
Fears over new variants of Covid-19 and their potential to bypass vaccines as they mutate accelerated studies into the role of T-cells.
Scientists are hopeful that T-cells could provide some immunity to the coronavirus, even if antibodies become less effective at fighting the disease.
But it is the breakthrough in cancer treatment that offers most hope for patients in the UAE who would otherwise be forced to go elsewhere for this kind of therapy.
“This technology is very new and it will change the way we treat cancer,” said Dr Humaid Al Shamsi, professor of oncology at the University of Sharjah.
“A recent study in China has also shown it can be effective in treating gastric cancer, and not just blood cancers.
“Nobody expected this, so it is very exciting.
“It is a significant milestone for the UAE to explore this kind of research.”
According to the World Health Organisation, leukaemia was responsible for 272 new cases of cancer in the UAE in 2020, or 5.6 per cent of all cancer cases.
In total, there were 4,807 cancer cases in the UAE in 2020.
While the therapy is currently one of the most expensive cancer treatments on offer, doctors expect the costs to come down as the technology improves.
Currently, a course of treatment can cost up to $400,000 (Dh1.4 million) per patient.
“It is one of the most expensive cancer treatments, because of the infrastructure, technology and raw materials required,” Dr Al Shamsi said.
“In the long run it could save money by getting patients into remission earlier and reducing the need for other longer-term treatments like chemotherapy.
“There are so many companies looking at this concept and running trials, we would expect the costs to come down significantly over the next few years.
“We always think about medical tourism and attracting patients, but we don’t want to see any have to leave either.
“Hopefully, this will see more patients come to the UAE for their cancer treatment.”