March 24, 2014 1:00 pm JST

Immune therapy opens new paths of cancer treatment

YUICHIRO YAZAKI

Regenerative medicine and cell therapy are positioned as strategic areas of emphasis in Japan under the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. As such, we at tella are conducting research and development on a dendritic cell vaccine, a type of immune therapy that is regarded as the fourth treatment method for cancer, to complement those of surgery, cancer drugs and radiation therapy. We call the vaccine Vaccell.    

     Dendritic cells are part of the immune system and direct lymphocites to attack foreign substances. Dendritic cell vaccine treatment applies this characteristic for cancer treatment.

     The treatment starts with taking monocytes, which can be used to generate dendritic cells, from blood of the cancer patient, and cultivate them into dendritic cells, which are made to memorize the characteristics of cancer. Finally, the cells are injected into the patient as a vaccine. The dendritic cells then direct lymphocytes to attack only cancerous cells.  

     Rockfeller University professor Ralph Steiman, who received the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity," had pancreatic cancer and received treatment using dendritic cells. Unfortunately, he died three days before the award announcement.

     At tella, researchers are trying to improve the efficiency of cell culture techniques developed by the Institute of Medical Science at the University of Tokyo. We also have acquired exclusive licenses relating to key techniques for a dendritic cell vaccine. At present, our technology and know-how are being supplied to medical institutions in 34 locations throughout Japan, including national medical institutions.

     We have produced results in some 8,000 total cases since 2004, which has earned tella a reputation for reliability, with more overseas patients coming from such countries and areas as South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Kuwait. With these world-class results, we are approaching a stage of growth that includes overseas development. In this regard, we are aiming to have contracts with overseas medical institutions in China and countries in Southeast Asia.  

Taking the hard cases

This cutting-edge treatment uses a patient's own cells, which means there are few side effects. By combining this treatment with surgery, drug therapy and radiation, numerous cases have been reported of improvements in the effectiveness of cancer treatments, such as extended patient longevity.    

     Keiko Goto, 58, received this treatment at Seren Clinic Tokyo. "It appealed to me because there are virtually no side effects and it can be done on an outpatient basis," Goto said. "I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread into the liver. I had lost hope, but the cancer had shrunk within three months of starting the treatment. My immunity increased as a result of this treatment method, to the point that I felt good enough to eat my favorite meals. I've even recovered sufficiently to continue my hobby of bird carving." 

     Late last year, the Japanese government decided to speed up the approval process for regenerative medicines, and tella intends to take advantage of this to have Vaccell, which is not currently covered by public medical insurance in Japan, recognized as a regenerative medicine product in fighting pancreatic cancer. Vaccell's treatment method can be used against virtually all cancers, but because pancreatic cancer is notoriously hard to treat, the company aims to make Vaccell a new cancer treatment option first for pancreatic cancer.

     As we move toward global development, we hope to make a positive contribution to the strength of Japanese cell medicine technology for cancer patients in other parts of the world as well.

Yuichiro Yazaki is president of tella, a Tokyo-based medical technology company listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange Jasdaq.