Earlier this month, Dr. Steven Devine, a renowned blood and marrow transplant physician, joined our organization as the Be The Match BioTherapies Medical Director. He came to the organization from the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC-James).
We spoke with Dr. Devine about his experiences as a clinician, and asked him what the cell and gene therapy industry can learn from blood and marrow transplantation specialists. He also shares his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities for the cell therapy industry.
Tell us about your background. How did you choose to specialize in blood and marrow transplants?
I am trained as a hematologist/oncologist and focused early in my career on patients with blood cancers like leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma. I gravitated toward blood and marrow transplantation as the science and complexity fascinated me. For many of the diseases my patients developed, it was the most effective therapy, particularly for patients not responding to their initial treatments. I continue to be amazed by the progress being made in this field and all it has to offer patients, but realize we still need to do better so more patients can be helped.
What we have learned in blood and marrow transplantation has really been critical to informing the development of the cellular therapy field. CAR T-cell therapy was created to be a logical refinement of what we have learned in transplantation, particularly with respect to the influence of the immune system and its capacity to treat and control the growth of cancer cells.
How do you hope to contribute to the Be The Match BioTherapies Team? What aspects of your role are you most excited about?
I have spent the last 20 years of my career in the field of blood and marrow transplantation and this has taught me a lot about the successes and failures of our current treatments. We have made tremendous progress in just a short period. But, I think now we have the technology and knowledge to accelerate the pace of progress and bring better, safer treatments to our patients, and at a faster pace.
I think my background as a physician allows me to not only evaluate the strength of the science behind a form of cellular therapy, but also about the potential clinical impact it can have on improving the lives of the patients we serve. I hope to bring my experience and perspective to Be The Match BioTherapies so we can collectively team up with the most innovative companies and organizations – those that are poised to advance the best therapies for our patients.
As a clinician, you’ve worked with cancer patients for many years. Why is advancing new cell therapies so important for the patient population?
The one thing all of us who treat patients with cancer have learned the hard way is that it can be very difficult to completely eradicate. Patients with leukemia, for instance, may enter a remission, but all too often it is short lived and they relapse. Treatment options are often limited at that point. What we have learned from blood and marrow transplantation is that the immune system and, in particular, T-cells can have a powerful impact against cancer cells like leukemia and lymphoma.
I see cellular therapy in cancer as one way of harnessing this knowledge to bring safer and more effective therapies to our patients. Importantly, the effects of T-cells and other immune cells may not just be limited to blood cancer and there are now many studies being conducted in patients with solid tumors like breast and lung cancer, melanoma and sarcoma, just to name a few. It’s a very exciting time as cellular therapy is expanding treatment options for our patients.
What do you see as the biggest challenges that cell therapy companies are facing at this moment? How is Be The Match BioTherapies positioned to help them?
First and foremost, and particularly for an early stage company without an approved product, the key is to design studies that will efficiently evaluate the safety, feasibility and effectiveness of a particular cellular therapy they have developed. Without well-designed studies, a potentially beneficial therapy may never get to the point where it can help patients.
Beyond that, navigating the regulatory hurdles is a critical step, as is handling all the logistics necessary to safely collect and transport cells from one place to the next without any mishaps. This is another way Be The Match BioTherapies can help. We can leverage over 30 years of experience in consistently collecting, transporting and tracking cells destined to be used in real patients, in a timely and safe manner.
Manufacturing is another big hurdle. Doing this well and in a reproducible manner is critical, as is meeting the timelines demanded by our patients and their clinical conditions. Another challenge is the globalization of the marketplace and how we deal with that. There are patients in need all over the globe and companies are stepping up to meet that challenge.
However, the U.S. is still in the lead, so how do our companies get their effective therapies out to more patients around the globe who need them? We don’t want to inadvertently create a situation where disparities in access to the best therapies are created.
Where do you see the biggest opportunities for cell therapy? Any emerging disease areas?
Cellular therapies are very different from conventional drugs as they will continue to evolve. They are really living, breathing therapies that are amenable to continued modification and optimization based on data generated not only in the laboratory but from safety and efficacy signals gained from the clinical trials we perform. This adaptability is one of the key differences of cellular therapy and also one of its most interesting characteristics.
As far as opportunities, I think we may see an approval for a CAR-T cell therapy for multiple myeloma in the next year, and we will learn more about the effectiveness of this treatment for patients with chronic leukemia who have expended most of their treatment options. I also see big opportunities in solid tumors and will be very interested in the results of these trials as they come out over the next few years.
There are also great opportunities to treat other serious and debilitating non-cancer related diseases such as multiple sclerosis, scleroderma, and sickle cell disease, just to name a few.
What is most exciting to you about the cell and gene therapy space?
The recent approval of a gene therapy for a form of hereditary blindness was a very exciting milestone and I believe we are on the cusp of being able to effectively treat other serious genetic disorders like sickle cell disease and immune deficiency syndromes through gene therapy. The technology is catching up with the complexity of these diseases, so I think we will see significant advances in gene therapy over the next decade.
There are a lot of opportunities to team up with several pioneering organizations and I hope I can help Be The Match BioTherapies evaluate and communicate the best opportunities to make progress and improve the lives of more patients by leveraging the many assets of our organization.
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