“Of course it’s personal recognition for work over the past decades, but I think more importantly, it’s recognition for the emerging form of immunotherapy that we have developed, which is now often referred to as CAR therapy,” he said.
There are different types of immunotherapy that can be used for cancer treatment, Sadelain explained, one being preventative vaccines, however it was not overly effective.
His method does not use a vaccine, rather instructs “some very important cells of the immune system, that are called T cells, teach them how to recognize the cancer cell and proceed to kill that cancer cell.”
A synthetic gene, which Sadelain created, creates a molecule called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR), which is then produced by the T cell. It tells the T cell to recognize the cancer cells and kill them off, he continued.
Dean Lorne Tyrrell, distinguished professor of medical microbiology and immunology, said it’s a huge honour to win the award, which also comes with a roughly $3 million prize.
He said Sadelain was a “determined and quiet student but you could tell he had a determination and an intellect that he was going to go a long way.”
He added Sadelain was already thinking of ways he would change the industry when he was a student and was certain he could make a contributing impact.
“He had some clear indication that that could be done and he was very persistent on following up on that and making it happen,” Tyrrell said. “He really is the inventor of T cells. That has been proven in court.”
Sadelain remembers coming up with the idea in 1986, while he was a student at the U of A. But to see his plan through, he needed to learn how to introduce genes to T cells — something that hadn’t yet been done. So, he went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., to learn from world leaders in the field.
Sadelain is currently the director of cell engineering at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York City, where he has been stationed for the past 20 years.
He said his inspiration was not only having experienced people in his own life battle cancer, but more of a principle: to demonstrate that cells can be medicine.
“Most medicines are pills or sometimes proteins — antibodies that people get in injections. But the pharmaceutical industry has never produced cells as medicines,” Sadelain said.
“It was deemed to be too complicated, and, maybe in the end, not worth it.
“If you demonstrate that you can achieve results with those cells that you cannot achieve with any other medicine — like, curative responses in patients, for example — now it becomes worth it.”
He added that pharmaceutical companies are now investing in cells as medicine for the first time after seeing their study results.
“There is a big effort right now to tailor these T cells for other cancers” and other auto-immune diseases, he said.
There are currently six CAR T cells available in Canada and the United States as commercial products, which can be used for some lymphomas, some leukemias and many myeloma, he said.
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