History is going to be made this week.
Very soon, patients in the United States will have access to a new gene therapy. It will be the first time this technology has been used to treat cancer.
The FDA's advisory panel met last Wednesday to review a new breakthrough leukemia therapy that could change the very nature of how we treat cancer moving forward.
Instead of using toxic chemotherapy cocktails, this new therapy uses gene editing and a patient's own cells to create a cancer cure.
The treatment takes millions of immune system cells from a patient's blood. It then processes those cells -- editing their genes so that they vigorously attack cancer cells when put back into the patient.
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The technology is called CAR-T. And many companies are working hard to be the first to bring this new technology to market.
Being first to market, however, doesn't always make for the final win. For the company or for its investors. Many times, a better product can come along later and leapfrog an earlier-generation technology.
It happens all the time. And this new therapy, while it's going to start saving lives, is ripe for improvement.
The current version of the therapy is called tisagenlecleucel, and it will be very expensive. New cancer drugs always are, but this new gene and cell therapy is particularly expensive to make.
Each patient will require his or her own special batch of cells be made. That's very costly. The process is expected to take close to 22 days, and the final price... around half a million dollars.
Furthermore, more than half of patients using this therapy currently experience cytokine release syndrome. This is a dangerous condition when the immune system goes into full attack mode... and it happens when millions of modified immune cells are put back into the patient and aggressively start killing malignant cells.
In some CAR-T clinical trials, patients have even died from the "storm" as immune cells go red alert.
What's needed is a way to mass-produce cells, bringing down costs. Furthermore, a way needs to be found to manage the cytokine storm.
Which is why I think the biotechnology companies working to address this side effect could be the biggest winners in the race to use gene-edited cells to attack cancer.
The next innovation in line to combat cytokine release syndrome is already in development and called UCART... it's a "universal" CAR-T therapy.
The reason the original version of CAR-T therapy needs to be made patient by patient is because our bodies reject foreign cells... and foreign immune cells in turn can attack the recipient's body.
The improved newer version, however, has edited genes in these cells to make them like universal donor cells. They can work in the vast majority of patients.
This means that companies could now mass-produce a universally adoptable CAR-T therapy that's much cheaper to make. It can also be stored for longer periods, meaning patients don't have to wait weeks to get a life saving dose.
This first universal cell therapy, called UCART123, is moving into human clinical trials very soon. And a couple of weeks ago, the company at the helm reported that its "off the shelf" technology is now being tested in patients.
It's a very important trend to keep an eye on. A lifesaving universal cancer treatment that is low-cost and eliminates the most deadly side effect of similarly designed therapies is big. Not only for cancer patients, but also your portfolio.
This article originally appeared on Daily Reckoning.