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Interview | Doing everything in India means we can offer CAR-T cell therapy for cancer patients at an affordable rate: ImmunoACT founder and CEO

CAR-T cell therapy for patients of blood cancer and lymphoma has a cure rate of about 40-50 percent, studies have shown  

June 13, 2022 / 01:38 PM IST

Rahul Purwar, whose journey in science started as a BTech student in Lucknow, completed his specialised degrees in biosciences and bioengineering at Hannover Medical School in Germany and Harvard Medical School in the US. After working briefly as a scientist with biotechnology giant ImmunoGen in the US, he joined the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. Immunotherapy against cancer has remained his primary interest and it was this keen interest that pushed him to do intensive research on developing chimeric antigen receptor (CAR-T) cell therapy indigenously for patients of blood cancer and lymphoma in India. The technology he developed is now patented and he, through his company ImmunoACT, is now looking to launch the therapy in the country by the end of 2023. On June 11, the company inaugurated a manufacturing facility that can produce therapies to treat about 1,200 every year.  In this chat with Moneycontrol, he talks about his journey so far and the future plans. Here are the edited excerpts:

 What do you think will be the significance of the launch of the ImmunoACT facility as the lab work was already happening at IIT, Bombay? How is the new facility going to help?


The facility was launched to ensure accessibility and affordability of gene therapy, and cell and gene therapy in India. This gene therapy or cell therapy is very expensive. At the same time, it’s a very effective treatment for cancer. However, it is not available in our country, not only just unavailable, it’s not available at any price. So we want to bring this technology to India. And at the same time, we want to ensure that it is accessible to all the patients who might benefit from this. So this facility is, I think, the first milestone in bringing this state-of-the-art technology to our country.


CAR-T cell therapy costs about Rs 3-4 crore per patient in the US. How do you plan to be able to offer it at less than 10 percent of that in India?


It’s a multifactorial thing. One of the factors is that all the R&D is done in our country. So in the last eight years, I have been doing research on this. Doing R&D internally is very cost-effective, as we have patents and we don’t need to license things. Second, our manufacturing platform is also indigenous. So the process we use is also indigenous and thus from product design till the process development, it is all ours. For patients, it means that we can offer the therapy at a far more reasonable rate.


Can you explain to our readers how exactly CART-T cell therapy works for blood cancer and lymphoma patients?

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First the patient comes to the hospital and we take the blood cells from the patient in the clinic. Those blood cells are then brought to our manufacturing facility, where we do genetic engineering on those cells and make them anti-cancer cells. Once we make these anti-cancer cells in the lab, we go back to the clinic and reinfuse the cells in the patient.


How long does it take for the entire process of taking the blood from a patient to infusing it back?


Arm to arm time is around two weeks. It takes 10-14 days to manufacture these cells and then the next four to five days to ensure the quality is good and then infusing it back in the patients.


Currently, your product is about to complete phase 1 clinical trials. How have the results been so far?


It’s too early to speak about the results, I think the results will be presented in one of the scientific fora. But we can at least say now this is safe, as well as that early results show good efficacy. We can also say that our therapy is almost benchmarked to the other internationally available or approved drugs. So our results are at par with international standards.


Does CAR-T cell therapy work only in the case of blood cancer and lymphoma patients or does it have some implications beyond these specific cancers as well?


As of now, the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) has approved the therapy for lymphoma and leukemia only but there are a lot of research studies going on and there are promising results in solid cancers. Investigational trials are currently on to assess its efficacy in the case of breast cancer, prostate cancer, and some brain cancers including neuroblastoma. Initial results suggest that while this therapy may not be as effective in these cases compared to leukemia and lymphoma, there are encouraging results there too. Then, there are some trials also happening to gauge its effectiveness beyond cancer, like in the case of certain autoimmune diseases.


You are about to begin phase 2 clinical trials for the therapy in India. What timeline are we looking at for its possible availability for clinical use in the country?


As we were the first to start gene therapy in India, the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation asked us to do sequential enrolment, which means we could only recruit patients one by one. That was the reason why it took us a long time—almost one year—to complete phase 1 trials. But subsequently, these regulatory restrictions will not be there. So we are hoping to complete the next phase of trials in about 12 to 18 months during which we can treat around 30 to 40 patients or even 50 patients. So, in about 18 months we can go for final approvals under the restricted use category while the large-scale trials can happen concurrently.


How did the setting up of ImmunoACT come about?

We founded ImmunoACT in 2018 and it was incubated under the Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at IIT-B. That year, as a SINE partner, we got some small funding and place to operate as the company was housed there. During the last three to four years, we were supported by some small government grants given by SINE. And then late last year Laurus Labs (a Hyderabad-based pharmaceutical company) partnered with us and thanks to them, we got significant funding to build the facility, to run the trials and to reach the market.

Sumi Sukanya Dutta
first published: Jun 13, 2022 01:01 pm
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