What once was seen as an incurable disease has been given a 90% remission rate in initial treatment trials.
Multiple myeloma is a bone marrow cancer with a historic prognosis of only two years. That is until a CAR T treatment was developed to target the cancerous mutations that make it so deadly. While this specific use of CAR T treatment is making new headlines, it builds upon the decades-old discovery made by Prof. Zelig Eshhar at our very own Weizmann Institute of Science.
Eshhar’s revolutionary T cell work saw the formation of what could be considered a superpowered T cell. By modifying it to have the precision of monoclonal antibodies, T cells can be “taught” to target cancerous cells in the body and effectively kill human tumor cells.
Prof. Eshhar’s research focuses on molecular recognition in the immune system, and he has been instrumental in developing a unique approach which involves genetic modifications of T-lymphocytes to produce a specific cell—called a T body (or CAR T cell)—that can be used to fight cancer.
In 2011, researchers at the U.S. National Cancer Institute and the University of Pennsylvania successfully treated patients with CAR T cells/T bodies—that is, they used genetically engineered versions of the patients’ own T cells.
In 2017, Gilead Sciences Inc. paid $11.9 billion to Kite Pharma, a California-based company that licensed Prof. Eshhar’s breakthrough CAR T cell therapy technology from the Weizmann Institute, using it as the basis of an effective, highly personalized cancer immunotherapy.
Since 2017, six CAR T cell therapies have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of blood cancers, including lymphomas, some forms of leukemia, and, most recently, multiple myeloma.
The groundbreaking idea of using immune system cells to fight cancer cells may have seemed an audacious idea when Eshhar’s started in the 1980s, but his theory was backed by years of education and research in the field of immunology.
With a BSc in biochemistry and microbiology and an MSc in biochemistry both from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israeli-born Eshhar fulfilled his doctoral research at the Weizmann Institute. He then worked for several years in the Department of Pathology of Harvard Medical School before returning to the Department of Immunology at the Weizmann Institute, where he was the head of the department for many years.
It was in these early years at the department that Eshhar began focusing on this specific type of genetic mutation. Through years of research and study, Prof. Eshhar found a way to add synthetic molecules, called chimeric antigen receptors (CAR), to T cells.
Eshhar’s original work has been built upon to achieve numerous successes in a variety of cancer treatments. The first wave of headlines came in 2011, with the University of Pennsylvania sharing a successful pilot trial with lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).
Paralleling with treatment discoveries over the years, Eshhar has continued his own work to further the science and research that keeps us marching forward with life-saving therapies.
Eshhar is the recipient of numerous awards including the 2015 Israel Prize in Life Sciences, Novartis Prize for Immunology (2016), the 2021 Dan David Prize of Tel Aviv University for his pioneering work on CAR T cell therapy, the prestigious Meira and Shaul G. Massry Prize, the Teva Award for Excellence in Memory of Eli Hurvitz, and the Journal of Human Gene Therapy Pioneer Award for Seminal Work in Gene and Cell Therapy (all in 2014). He is the founder and Chairman of the Israeli Society of Gene Therapy, a Board member of the European Society of Gene Therapy, and a cartoonist.
Upon winning the Dan Prize in 2021, Eshhar remarked, “Our biggest satisfaction was that CAR T therapy was approved by the FDA and now patients benefit by getting the treatment all over the world.”
CAR T cell therapies are now widely available in the United States and other countries. They have become a standard treatment for patients with aggressive lymphomas and are a part of mainstream, modern medicine.
And similar to the latest remission success rate for multiple myeloma patients, Prof. Eshhar’s research continues to lead to groundbreaking treatments.