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Penn and Novartis — a multinational, Swiss pharmaceutical company — are uniting to combat cancer.

Last week, the University announced an exclusive, multi-year global research and licensing agreement with Novartis to expand the number of new cellular immunotherapies for cancer.

The Penn-Novartis agreement followed Perelman School of Medicine’s breakthrough work last year in which T-cells — a type of white blood cells that protect the body from infection — were extracted from patients with advanced chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The T-cells or T-lymphocytes were genetically engineered to target the cancer cells for destruction, triggering striking results in the patients. Two of the patients went into complete remission, according to Novartis’ press release.

The first steps in the Penn-Novartis collaboration involve a focus on developing cell production facilities, bringing to Penn the first Center for Advanced Cellular Therapies. This new building will allow researchers to develop and manufacture chimeric antigen receptor technology for the treatment of cancer, according to Novartis’ press release. Research collaborations will also begin during the first year.

“We’re aiming to optimize treatment protocols and identify potential new cancer targets for T-cell mediated therapeutic approaches,” said Medical School Dean J. Larry Jameson.

The construction of new cancer research facilities at Penn will allow for the expansion of the number of patients who can be treated. “Because the clinical results were so striking, Penn had more than 5,000 patients or families contacting us wanting to enroll on clinical trials,” said Bruce Levine, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the medical school.

Levine works closely with pathology and laboratory medicine professor Carl June, who served as the study’s leader and is director of translational research at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center.

The findings — published nearly a year ago in the New England Journal of Medicine and Science Translational Medicine — were the first demonstration of the use of gene transfer therapy to create “serial killer” T cells targeting cancerous tumors, according to a press release by the medical school.

More than a decade of work on Penn’s campus has been directed towards these developments, “with a very talented team led by Carl June and the work of David Porter, Bruce Levine and many others who have invested years of research together to get to this stage,” said Jameson.

June and Levine arrived at Penn as faculty in 1999. Levine, a 1984 College graduate, recalls that “we found here an environment that was very hospitable to translational research and great colleagues and collaborators with which we’ve completed and initiated a large number of clinical trials testing novel cell and gene therapies.”

The negotiation involved leadership from Perelman, the Office of the Provost and the Center for Technology Transfer, which were “integral to establishing a synergistic collaboration,” Jameson added. “This type of collaboration between academia and industry is important to accelerate the translation of biomedical advances into new treatments.”

The collaboration, which is the largest academic-industry agreement in Penn’s history, has a number of positive implications for the Penn community, said Levine.

“It’s a huge deal for Penn. It allows us to take this beyond basic research and early clinical trials in a small numbers of patients and opens the possibility to conduct the later phase clinical trials that will allow us to gather the data to submit to the FDA for approval.”

Jameson agreed, adding that it represents an important milestone in Penn’s translational research efforts.

“Over the last decade or so, the institution has focused faculty recruitments and resources on topics that bridge basic science and clinical care with a goal of developing more effective treatments for patients,” Jameson said. “This project embodies this theme in a very real way.”

Although it is difficult to predict a certain timeline of events and discoveries, there are several goals the Penn-Novartis collaboration hopes to achieve.

“A long-term goal is to develop T-cell mediated treatments for other cancers, beginning with leukemias and lymphomas but hopefully ultimately extending to solid tumors,” said Jameson.

Penn students may also be affected by this collaboration.

“Medical students will be exposed first hand to how research can change clinical care and they will train in an institution where the latest approaches to cancer treatment are being discussed on a daily basis,” Jameson said.

Some will become involved in research related to T-cell mediated cancer treatments or immunological approaches to cancer more broadly, he added.

“There’s a huge amount of effort and top-notch research being conducted here at Penn, and this collaboration highlights the orientation of Penn as a practical university, going back to our founder’s emphasis on the impetus to be useful,” Levine said.

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