Dr. Brad Nelson shows off the new Conconi Family Immunotherapy Lab at the B.C. Cancer Agency's Deeley Research Centre in Victoria.

New cancer treatment centre a game changer for patients

It’s something Dr. Brad Nelson has been dreaming about for years.

It’s something Dr. Brad Nelson has been dreaming about for years.

After working in the immunotherapy industry for two decades and seeing the success of roughly 20 to 30 other labs around the world, Nelson was hoping to bring the latest in immunotherapy treatment to patients in British Columbia.

Now, those dreams have become reality with the opening of the Conconi Family Immunotherapy Lab at the B.C. Cancer Agency’s Deeley Research Centre.

Scientists will use the roughly 500-square-foot “clean room” to focus on Adoptive T cell therapy, a specific form of immunotherapy that amplifies the power of T cells — immune cells responsible for destroying viruses and tumours — extracted from an individual cancer patient.

Scientists identify the T cells already attempting to destroy the cancer, grow an army of immune cells in the lab, and supercharge them to recognize the patient’s tumour, which are then delivered through an IV infusion.

The treatment will be used on patients who have tried other forms of treatment, such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, but were unsuccessful.

“To have all of this interest in the field and the ability to raise funds, build a clean room, and all these things is something I’ve personally been dreaming about for years and suddenly it’s all a green light. I couldn’t ask for more,” said Nelson, who’s the director of the Deely Research Centre.

“This is a game changer because we’re talking about using the patient’s own immune system to treat their cancer. That has a lot of appeal to patients as a starting point . . . most exciting is it’s actually starting to work.”

The Robert L. Conconi Foundation, for whom the lab is named after, helped raise $2 million to help build the lab. The rest of the funds came from more than 5,900 donors across the province and other fundraisers over the past year.

“It’s extraordinary for us, but more importantly it’s extraordinary for British Columbia and the community on the Island who funded it,” said Sarah Roth, president and CEO of the B.C. Cancer Foundation.

“What this represents is hope for patients with cancer in a way that’s never been talked about before . . . it demonstrates how our community is rallying behind the prospect of science and the need for philanthropy to drive innovation.”

Phase one, which includes clinical trials for ovarian and cervical cancer, are slated to begin in early 2017, with plans to launch other trials in lymphoma, prostate, and pancreatic cancer in the future.