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Should You Save Your Cells Now to Fight Cancer Later?

A Florida startup is offering customers the chance to bank their immune cells to be used for advanced cancer treatments in the future. But scientists are skeptical.

AA Florida-based startup called Cell Vault wants to bank your immune cells in case you need them one day. The company says these cells could be used to make so-called living drugs against cancer and is offering a service that will cryopreserve them for an initial $700 and keep them stored in a freezer for $300 a year after that.

Advanced therapies that involve supercharging patients’ own immune cells are showing remarkable results in people with some types of cancer. Though most cancer patients still receive traditional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, Cell Vault thinks that will change in the next few years, and that consumers will be willing to pay continuously to harvest and store those cells. But some cancer doctors say people probably won’t ever need to use their banked cells, and even if they did, it’s unknown if these cells could even be used to make such therapies.

Founder and CEO Kevin Kirk, who previously ran an “event experience” company called Social Nova, came up with the idea after talking to a friend who works at a biotech firm. Kirk thought that if women and couples can freeze eggs and embryos for future fertility treatments, why not freeze immune cells for future cancer therapy? (Egg and embryo storage freezing costs around $400 to $1,000 a year.)

Kirk’s company is marketing its cell banking service to healthy people — especially the “30- and 40-year-old health conscious consumers who can afford to do something like this,” he says — as well as newly diagnosed cancer patients. After you order a kit from Cell Vault’s website, the company says it will send a phlebotomist to your home to collect five vials of your blood. The blood sample is then shipped overnight to Cell Vault’s lab, where it is processed and stored. Cell Vault says it will begin shipping its collection kits in September.

Patients’ immune cells are currently used in two therapies approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2017: Kymriah and Yescarta, which both treat specific types of blood cancer. Known as CAR T-cell therapies, they’re made by extracting T-cells — a type of immune cell — from patients’ blood. These T-cells are then shipped to a lab, where scientists genetically engineer them to produce proteins on their surface called chimeric antigen receptors, or CARs. These receptors allow them to attach to and kill cancer cells. The modified cells are then infused back into the body, where they multiply and attack the cancer.

Kirk says the idea is to freeze your immune cells when you have a lot of them and when they’re at their healthiest. But Dr. Yi Lin, a hematologist at the Mayo Clinic, argues that the odds of needing to use your banked T-cells for one of these therapies is “very low.” While Cell Vault says on its website that one in three people will get cancer in their lifetime — a number that comes from the American Cancer Society — the vast majority of those people will never undergo CAR T-cell therapy. That’s because CAR T-cell therapies are a last resort for these patients after chemotherapy and radiation fail — at least for now.

For those who do freeze their T-cells and end up needing a cell therapy in the future, there’s no guarantee that their banked cells could be used.

Kirk says Cell Vault is trying to get ahead of the curve, counting on the hope — held by many in the cancer field — that more of these cell therapies will be coming onto the market in the future. There are currently hundreds of ongoing clinical trials that use T-cells and other immune cells to treat a variety of cancers and other diseases. Scientists are also testing whether healthy cells from a donor could be employed to treat cancer, which could someday reduce the need for treatments that use a patient’s own cells. Still, such treatments are experimental and likely years away from gaining FDA approval. It’s also unknown whether they’ll be as effective against common solid tumors, like breast cancer, which kills more than 40,000 women in the United States each year.

Eventually, Kirk thinks his service could help newly diagnosed cancer patients. Some patients who are eligible for CAR T-cell therapy don’t have enough T-cells left in their body after the harsh effects of multiple rounds of chemotherapy. “At that point, it’s the end of their cycle. There’s nothing left for them to do and they pass away,” Kirk says. Cell Vault aims to bank people’s cells before they get to that point.

But for those who do freeze their T-cells and end up needing a cell therapy in the future, there’s no guarantee that their banked cells could be used. Bruce Levine, a professor of cancer gene therapy at the University of Pennsylvania who helped develop Kymriah, says a quick blood draw would collect just a few million cells, which is “definitely not enough” for the two approved CAR T-cell therapies. There is no treatment approved by the FDA that would make use of banked cells, Levine says.

By contrast, the cell therapies Kymriah and Yescarta require billions of cells. Those cells are acquired not with a blood draw but through a process called apheresis, in which a person’s blood passes through a machine to separate out immune cells, and then returns the rest of the blood to the body. That process collects the billions of cells that are needed for CAR T-cell therapy. Kirk, however, says a patient’s banked cells could be multiplied in a lab to make enough cells required for the procedure, but the company hasn’t provided any evidence that it can do that.

It’s also unclear whether the FDA would allow patients to use their cells even if they bank them. Levine and Lin say makers of CAR T-cell therapies would likely need to get approval from the agency to use pre-frozen T-cells from a third party. The FDA also sets limits on how long these cells can be stored. “It would be oversimplified to assume that just because you have something saved and you get to a point where you need it, you can just ship those cells to the company and have them manufacture a therapy,” Lin says. (Kirk responds that Cell Vault is working with manufacturers in hopes of getting their banked cells approved for future use.)

There also isn’t enough data to show that immune cells can be frozen for 20 or more years and still be effective. (Cell Vault is offering a 20-year package for $200 a year and lifetime storage for 80 years for $100 a year.)

Beyond the fact that most people probably won’t need their T-cells in the future — meaning customers could end up wasting thousands of dollars over the years — Levine worries that companies offering to bank immune cells could be selling false hope to patients with cancer and other serious diseases. “They’re playing into people’s fears.”

Update: This piece has been updated to include additional information from Cell Vault.

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.

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