Why NexCAR19, India’s own CAR-T cell therapy, is a boon for blood cancer patients

In a promising development in the area of cancer treatment, NexCAR19, India’s first indigenously developed CAR-T cell therapy is now available for commercial use. It can be given to cancer patients, especially those who are suffering from blood cancer, including leukaemia and lymphomas.

In this process, a patient’s white blood cells (also called lymphocytes) are extracted, genetically modified to equip them with tools to identify and destroy cancer cells wherever they may be present in the body. NexCAR19 is administered in the patient as a single intravenous infusion after the patient has been through chemotherapy. Developed collaboratively by ImmunoACT, a company incubated at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT-B) and Tata Memorial Hospital, the therapy has, reportedly, been administered to 15 patients in India.

In January this year, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai became the first one to offer the CAR-T cell therapy to its cancer patients.

“This is a milestone, really,” said Dr Preetam Jain, medical oncologist, Bhatia Hospital. “Blood cancers usually spread so fast in the body that it becomes a challenge to contain the disease in time.”

Late last year, the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) granted market authorisation for NexCAR19, paving way for the commercial launch of this therapy in India. The best part about the indigenous development is that the treatment with this therapy will now be available at a tenth of the cost abroad.

Earlier, in 2021, THE WEEK had reported how the Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy was about to emerge as a breakthrough in cancer treatment. Clinical trials conducted globally had shown promising results in end stage patients, especially in patients suffering from Acute Lymphocytic Leukaemia. At the time, despite it having a remarkable therapeutic potential for cancer patients, this technology was not available in India and patients would shell out Rs 3 to Rs 4 crore for their CAR-T cell therapy abroad.

The challenge, therefore, was to develop this technology in cost-effective manner and make it available for patients in India. June 4, 2021, was a historic day in this regard in India because it was on this day, the first CAR-T cell therapy was done at the bone marrow transplant unit at ACTREC, Tata Memorial Center in Mumbai. The CAR-T cells were designed and manufactured at Bioscience and Bioengineering (BSBE) department of IIT Bombay. IIT-B director Subhasis Chaudhuri said this was a significant feat for the institute as well as the country. “We at IIT-B are delighted that our scientists, along with Tata Memorial Hospital, have come out with the most sophisticated therapy in cancer treatment. This will save millions of lives by making the treatment available in India at an affordable cost. It is a research of IIT-B that is expected to touch the lives of all,” he said.

This therapy is for treatment of diseases including acute lymphocytic leukaemia, multiple myeloma, glioblastoma, hepatocellular carcinoma.