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Health Watch: Penn's cancer breakthrough spurs development

Twenty years of research and clinical trials led to the recent announcement that 7-year-old Emma Whitehead's luekemia was in remission. It was the moment that T-cell immunotherapy technology burst from the laboratories of Penn Medicine into the national headlines. Now a commitment from Novartis to build a $20 million Center for Advanced Cellular Therapy (slated for 2013) will speed up FDA approval and enable treatment in greater numbers.

For something as large and complex as cancer research, philanthropic and federal funding only goes so far. "We’re so fortunate to have the opportunity, with this alliance with Novartis, to hand off what we’ve developed in an academic medical center," says Bruce Levine, director of the Clinical Cell and Vaccine Production Facility at Penn's Abramson Cancer Center.

Just how big is the breakthrough?

The Penn team is already building t-cell programs to treat pancreatic cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer. Eventually, this treatment could affect tens of thousands of lives.

Understandably, Penn medicine has been deluged with calls from patients worldwide. In an effort to coordinate a response, the Ambrason Cancer Center has launched a separate section on their website for access to detailed trial information, physicians and additional clinical trials.
It’s hard to measure the full impact T-cell immunotherapy will have on economic growth for our region, but Levine anticipates a "ripple effect." In addition to the construction, staffing and management jobs necessary for a $20 million facility, a greater number of clinical trials leads to more opportunities for care providers and researchers. For now, Penn Medicine’s technical groups are offering highly skilled positions while Novartis builds up their expertise.

"It’s huge," says Levine. "We’ve seen from [Penn] University and Penn Medicine a great commitment to facilitating this research." 

Source: Bruce Levine, Penn Medicine
Writer: Dana Henry
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