SINGAPORE - Scientists are increasingly looking at a new type of treatment - which involves harnessing a patient's own immune cells and improving them, so that they are better able to fight cancer.
Also known as cell therapy, the treatment works by first extracting the patient's T cells from his blood, and then genetically engineering them to improve their ability to attack cancer cells.
The T cells, which are critical in killing cells that are infected by pathogens, are then grown and multiplied en masse, before being injected back into the patient's blood stream.
While there are several types of cell therapy, a specific kind - known as the chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy - has made the most headway. A few CAR T-cell therapies have been approved for use in patients with certain types of blood cancer.
CAR T-cells are engineered in such a way that T cells are able to recognise and attach to antigens, which are proteins found on tumour cells, thus helping the body to kill these tumour cells.
But Singapore-based biotech firm Biosyngen has set its sights on developing these cell therapies to benefit an even larger group of cancer patients.
These include CAR T-cell therapies for nasopharyngeal cancer (a cancer at the back of the nose), gastric cancer and lymphoma, which are currently in the pipeline.
Apart from CAR T-cells, Biosyngen is also developing another type of cell therapy for the three cancers, known as the T-cell receptor (TCR) therapy. While the TCR therapy works in a similar mechanism as CAR T-cells, it recognises and targets a different set of antigens.
Dr Cecilia Zhang, Biosyngen's director and chief scientific officer, told The Straits Times that these cancers are linked to infection by the Epstein-Barr virus, or EBV, which are aggressive cancers that are especially prominent in the Asian population, especially in China and South-east Asia.
The company is currently conducting most of its clinical trials in China, and it recently received a 500 million yuan (S$107 million) investment to set up its cell manufacturing facility there, which will be launched by the end of the year.
"Treatments could be commercially available for late-stage cancer patients by 2024," said Dr Zhang.
The company is also looking at developing a manufacturing facility in Singapore, to make its treatments available for both the local and global markets.
Moving forward, Biosyngen is using its cell therapy to target other types of cancers - such as cervical, pancreatic and colorectal cancers. Additional features must be added to these T cells such that they can adequately target these types of tumours, said Dr Zhang.
"To this end, Biosyngen has a strategic partnership with the National University of Singapore to develop next-generation CAR T cells based on gene editing, where certain genes could be modified to enhance T cells' killing potential," she added.