Celsense, Pitt trial to 'see' cells fight cancer

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The notion of using cancerous cells extracted from a patient to fight the disease isn't an entirely new concept, but a new clinical trial involving Downtown-based Celsense Inc. and the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute could lead to breakthroughs in the process.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared a Phase I clinical trial for Celsense Inc. and the Cancer Institute to test Cell Sense, a product that "labels" cells extracted from the body for cell-based immunotherapy treatments so they can be detected through an MRI once they're injected back into the patient. The immunotherapy process "stimulates the immune system to fight diseases" by triggering a response to attack specific cells, said Celsense president and CEO Charles O'Hanlon.

Celsense Inc. was formed in 2005 to distribute imaging products created at Carnegie Mellon University to commercial markets.

Theoretically, Cancer Institute doctors involved in the trial will be able to track the movements of a cell vaccine created to fight colorectal cancer once the cells are injected, a feature that does not exist within the current immunotherapy treatment process. Pawel Kalinski, director of UPCI's Immunotransplantation Center, said he had seen some success in colorectal patients who took part in a study using a vaccine made of dendritic cells -- immune cells that specialize in triggering immune system reactions -- combined with certain antigens.

He said the tracking technology could help optimize use of the vaccine by finding more efficient ways to get the cells to the brain's lymph nodes, where the attack response is triggered.

"We want to use the platform of labeling our dendritic cells to make certain how well they enter the lymph nodes, how long they remain once they get there, and to examine how we can further optimize the process," he said.

Eric Ahrens, associate professor of biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon University who led development of the labeling technology, said it could be applied to thousands of new and emerging procedures that currently use cells for treatment but cannot track where cells end up in the body.

"I believe as many cell therapies that are emerging, cell tracking using imaging will be an essential part of the process," he said.

If the trial is successful, Mr. O'Hanlon said the technology has potential to help thousands of cell therapy treatments to gain FDA approval and to reduce high research costs.

He said a product called Provenge, the only cellular immunotherapy treatment approved by the FDA, cost the Seattle-based Dendreon Corp. hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and costs $93,000 for a full range of treatment. Most companies working on similar treatments spend similar amounts without ever going beyond development stages. Simply seeing what happens to cells inside the body can cut those costs dramatically, he said.

"It won't be as expensive in the future," he said. "It works two ways: if [the technology] works, it will be easier to see if it works. If it doesn't work, it's easier to see it doesn't work."

Celsense Inc. is funded by angel investors, most of whom are based in Pittsburgh. The company has raised $8 million in capital so far. The study is funded by a four-year, $1.95 million grant from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health.

Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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