Alberta to offer new blood cancer treatment with $15-million investment

Dr. Andrew Daly speaks about a new investment in cancer care at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary on Monday, August 24, 2020.

Alberta will become the third Canadian province to offer a “game-changing” treatment for people with certain blood cancers, Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced Monday.

A $15-million partnership between the Alberta government and the Alberta Cancer Foundation will make chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy available locally, with a clinical trial starting this fall at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton, and Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre and Alberta Children’s Hospital.

Calgary hematologist Dr. Andrew Daly said without local access to this treatment, it’s been available only to patients with advanced blood cancers participating in clinical trials. Some people even travel outside the country to receive it.

“CAR T-cell therapy is designed individually for each individual patient. It’s been shown in clinical trials to cure some patients, even those for whom chemotherapy has stopped working,” Daly said.

“CAR T-cell therapy offers these patients hope for recovery and hope that their lives will return to normal.”

The treatment uses a patient’s own immune cells to fight cancer. A type of white blood cell called T-cells are taken out of their body, genetically reprogrammed in a lab to attack cancer cells, and then infused back into the person so they can find and destroy cancer cells.

About 150 patients in Alberta are expected to be eligible for the immunotherapy over the next three years.

Daly said between 30 and 60 Albertans die every year from a relapse of certain kinds of lymphoma and leukemia. If their initial treatment is no longer effective, CAR T-cell therapy could be a last resort.

“By developing a CAR T-cell program in Alberta, some of our sickest patients will have access to this medically necessary care through our public health-care system.”

 Alberta Minister of Health Tyler Shandro announces a new investment in cancer care at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary on Monday, August 24, 2020.

Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada president Alicia Talarico said in a statement that making CAR T-cell therapy more widely available means more patients can get “game-changing” treatment that could be “their only chance to survive cancer.”

Shandro said that after this year’s clinical trial, treatment is set to start in the winter of 2020 at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, with the two other clinical trial sites following. The Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton is expected to also start offering the treatment by 2023.

According to the government, the new funding will pay for the clinical trial as well as health worker training, nursing staff, diagnostic imaging and followup care.

The treatment costs about $400,000 per patient, on average. The total $15-million investment includes $10 million from the provincial government and $5 million from the Alberta Cancer Foundation.

“Albertans with cancer need access to the most innovative, the most successful treatments, and they need it in a timely way,” Shandro said.

CAR T-cell therapy is also offered in Ontario and Quebec.

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