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Moffitt flexes cancer-fighting muscle with new cell labs

The H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center is expanding its technology for the fight against cancer by adding three new cell therapy labs to its facility.

The director of the cell therapy project, William Janssen, said the labs have taken cell therapy to a whole new level.

“(Cell therapy) opens doors to other approaches that before now we didn’t have access to and, at the very least, could be a mechanism for stopping relapse,” Janssen said.

The National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society and private provided grants to pay for the cost of the cell labs. The construction of the new cell therapy labs were completed earlier this year at a cost of about $750,000.

Two of the three cell labs will be used for engineering projects to create tumor vaccines. Janssen said the vaccines stem from altered tumor cells that have been extracted from a patient’s tumor.

The cell therapy process involves taking cells from cancer patients or donors, modifying them with the available biotechnology and then directing a therapeutic process.

“We take these cells and grow them in culture, then genetically modify them so they’re expressing additional protein markers with the purpose of waking the immune system up,” Janssen said. “The first round of studies show in some patients it does really work and they are able to re-stimulate the immune system to respond and attack its own disease.”

The second lab is referred to as the cell isolation lab. The lab houses a high-speed flow cytometer, which is an instrument used to sort cells into two or more separated purified cell populations, Janssen said. This instrument can also be used to isolate blood forming stem cells for bone marrow transplants.

Janssen said the last lab in the cell therapy facility conducts post therapy evaluations that cannot be done in a regular clinical laboratory. By using a robotic cell analyzer, which closely monitors the change of the cell samples, technicians are able to track the immune systems of patients who have already had the therapy. The sampled cells of these patients are then diagnosed by another robot and stored in a computer.

Janssen added that the cell therapy facility operates under regulation of the Food and Drug Administration which monitor prescriptions.

“Anytime you put something into an individual for therapeutic intent, in the eyes of the USFDA, it’s a drug, a pharmaceutical, and becomes regulated,” Janssen said.

Therefore, the cell therapy labs have to comply with standards and regulations set by the FDA, as the federal government heavily weighs in on the products being produced. A major area of compliance is that the facility provides full sterility for the agents being made.

“The FDA exists for protecting the welfare of patients. You don’t want to give products that could be worse than the original disease in the first place,” Janssen said.