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BCLA’s 5th Annual Healthcare Symposium: Cell & Gene Therapy: Past, Present, and Future

BCLA held its 5th Healthcare Symposium focused on Cell & Gene Therapy: Past, Present and Future on May 28th 2020 via Zoom. With over 140 attendees, the event was a great success! Our panelists included three researchers as well as two cancer survivors, now patient advocates, who have firsthand experience receiving cell therapies as part of their treatment regimen.

The event kicked off with an introduction to BCLA and a history of the healthcare symposium by Adhi Sikand, BCLA President, and short presentations by the event sponsors: ThermoFisher Scientific, Stem Cell technology, UCLA Easton Technology Management Center and GWIS Los Angeles Chapter. We would like to thank our sponsors for their continued support of our mission and for helping us deliver innovative events to our community!

The keynote speaker for the event was Melinda Bachini, a mother of six who was diagnosed with a rare bile duct cancer called Cholangiocarcinoma over a decade ago. Surgery was the only option at the time of her diagnosis. Melinda had two thirds of her liver removed but her cancer relapsed. She then underwent chemotherapy but had to stop due to the impact on her quality of life. While searching for clinical trials towards new therapies, Melinda found out about the NIH GI tumor infiltrating lymphocyte (TIL) trial in Bethesda, MD. She was the first of nine patients to show a response and went 18 months without further treatment, prior to a second treatment. Her case study was published in the journal Science and covered by numerous media sources. This led her to her current work as a patient advocate, working with the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation and the National Cancer Institute Hepatobiliary Task Force. This story offered a unique perspective from a patient and was a wonderful reminder to many of us researchers in the lab of the impact the work of our research community has, both directly and indirectly, on patients.

The main part of the event consisted of a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Alan Horsager, entrepreneur and director of LA BioSpace, a life-science incubator at Cal State LA. The panelists were: Dr. Janani Krishmamurthy, director of preclinical research at City of Hope; Diana Chingos, a patient advocate in southern California and survivor of breast cancer; Melinda Bachini (see above); and Dr. Susan D’costa, head of process and analytical development for viral vector services at ThermoFisher Scientific. The conversation focused on three main aspects of cell and gene therapy – technology and development, limitations to commercialization focused on regulatory and pricing challenges, and the patient perspective. Cell & gene therapies are a novel therapeutic whereby a gene is introduced into a patient’s system through viral vectors or the immune system, mainly through T-cells. Main challenges, the panelists agreed, are ensuring the viral vectors or immune cell therapies get to the right place in the body, especially for solid tumors, and immune suppression by the tumor. Additional challenges, which are reflected in the cost of these therapeutics is the cost of virus production needed to support these technologies as well precursor materials. However, there is hope that open source technologies for viral vector productions, lower cost of raw materials and off-the shelf therapies, rather than using patient cells, will improve cost and access. Finally, the panelists discussed patient access: while cost and reimbursement is a key barrier to access, Diana also pointed out that some FDA approved therapeutics are not equally distributed across the US, with access at some medical centers, but not others, making this a challenging aspect of ensuring the right patients can benefit from these therapies.

We would like to thank all of the panelists for a lively discussion, as well as attendees and sponsors for making the 5th BCLA Healthcare symposium a great success! Stay tuned for upcoming BCLA virtual events to keep you connected with the Los Angeles biotech community.

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