The Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester has recruited its first patient to a clinical trial which is investigating a new technique to treat cancer patients with solid tumours, using the body’s own T cells that are genetically modified to fight the cancer.

The study, funded by pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), offers a new experimental treatment, using T cell immunotherapy, which may offer hope for patients with metastatic synovial sarcoma, a rare and incurable cancer affecting mainly young adults.

Mum, Sarah Hughes, 37, from Whitchurch in Shropshire, who has an 11 year old daughter, Taylor, and is deputy manager of a Headway brain injury charity shop, was diagnosed with a rare cancer in her right knee in June 2014. Doctors were forced to amputate her leg above the knee. Unfortunately, the cancer, called a synovial sarcoma, continued to spread, despite standard chemotherapy, and Sarah, with her partner Andrew, was forced to look for other options.

In May 2020, Sarah was offered the chance to take part in a clinical trial, which was being set up at The Christie.  Sarah’s healthy immune cells, known as T cells, were collected and sent to GSK’s laboratories where they were genetically modified so they can recognise the cancer. The T cells were then infused back into Sarah’s body in November last year.

This experimental and innovative approach consists of reprogramming the immune cells of a patient in order to fight the specific cancer. Cellular therapy represents one of the few potential advances over the past fifty years against this rare type of cancer, which accounts for less than 1% of all cancer cases in adults. This type of personalised medicine, may offer a glimmer of hope for patients and their families, given that chemotherapy, which is often very toxic, gives little results for this particular form of the disease.

Professor Fiona Thistlethwaite, consultant medical oncologist at The Christie, explained: “This is a complex clinical trial and it’s fantastic to be able to deliver this treatment during COVID-19. It is similar to CAR-T therapy, which can be used to treat blood cancers. It can be a gruelling procedure, so patients need to be relatively young, fit and in a relatively good overall condition to be able to cope with the infusion. This is investigational research and outcomes will differ from patient to patient. While this trial is focusing on patients with synovial sarcoma, where there’s currently an unmet need, this new innovative approach opens the door to developing treatments for other solid tumour cancers in the future.” 

Sarah Hughes said: “It was tough going and it was touch and go at times, but as a family we all remained positive. In a situation like this anything is worth a try and I didn’t think twice about taking part. I would encourage anyone to sign up for a clinical trial if it’s an option for them. It can hopefully help us and future generations. I can’t thank The Christie staff enough who have been amazing, particularly during these crazy times.”

What are T-cells?

T cells are a part of the immune system that focuses on specific foreign particles. Rather than generically attack any antigens, T cells circulate until they encounter their specific antigen. As such, T cells play a critical part in immunity to foreign substances.

What is an antigen?

Any substance that induces the immune system to produce antibodies against it is called an antigen. Any foreign invaders, such as pathogens (bacteria and viruses), chemicals, toxins, and pollens, can be antigens. Under pathological conditions, normal cellular proteins can become self-antigens.