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New era for blood cancer treatment in Saudi Arabia

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Globally, treatment approaches to cancer have evolved significantly over recent years. Kite, a Gilead Company, has contributed to this evolving treatment landscape through research and development in cell therapies, which use genetically modified immune cells programmed to target cancer cells. A key tenet of Saudi Vision 2030 – a blueprint for the nation’s economic and social reform - is healthcare, on the basis that good health is a crucial aspect of any nation’s development plans.

Saudi Arabia’s Health Sector Transformation Program aims to restructure the nation’s health sector to be a comprehensive, effective and integrated system, based on the health of the individual and society, which will lead to better patient outcomes.

Saudi Arabia’s government plans to invest more than US$65 billion to develop the country’s healthcare infrastructure. In addition, it aims to increase private sector contribution from 40 per cent to 65 per cent by 2030, targeting the privatization of 290 hospitals and 2,300 primary health centers. Moreover, Saudi Arabia to serve as a hub for medical tourism.

Research vanguard

Kite, a Gilead Company, established in 2009, is the global leader in cell therapy, with the largest number of approved cell therapies in blood cancer. As experts and pioneers in cell therapy, the US headquartered company is focused on the use of such therapies to target blood cancers. People are at the heart of Kite’s commitment to the cure, with a goal to deliver potentially life-saving medicines to people with advanced blood cancer.

The company is at the vanguard of research into the potential of the immune system to treat cancer since its inception – and so far, its ground-breaking cell therapy has been received by some 11,000 people with blood cancers worldwide, with an industry-leading 100 per cent manufacturing success rate achieved in ZUMA-7 clinical trial for Second-Line Therapy for Large B-Cell Lymphoma.

In the Middle East, Incidences of cancer are increasing, and non-communicable diseases are on the rise. While global deaths from cancer, corrected for ageing, declined by 15 per cent from 1990 to 2016, across the Arab world, the number of people diagnosed with cancer is set to almost double by 2030, according to the World Health Organization.

Cancer used to be considered a condition related to aging, but globally, because of the dynamic changes in society, it is now a disease affecting both genders of all ages. For example, lymphoma (a type of blood cancer which affects the body’s immune system) patients presenting at one of KSA’s leading hospitals are at a more advanced staged and involve a younger population, meaning survival is lower when compared to survival data reported in international studies.

This was the key driver for our decision to make the potentially curable cell therapy treatment available for Saudi patients. Furthermore, according to the Swedish Institute for Health Economics (IHE), in nine regional territories, the annual number of newly diagnosed cancer cases per 100,000 inhabitants has been on the rise since the year 2000.

Kite’s trailblazing treatments

Kite’s innovative treatment involves taking a patient’s white blood cells, and genetically reengineering the blood to help treat certain blood cancers. Known as Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T Cell Technology, CAR T is a type of immunotherapy that involves harnessing the power of a patient’s own immune system by engineering T cells – cells critical to the immune system’s ability to detect and target cancer cells. Engineered T cell therapies are recognized as a breakthrough in cancer treatment since the introduction of combination chemotherapy more than 60 years ago.

In blood cancer patients, T cells are often unable to recognize tumor cells as foreign, or their activation is sub-optimal or suppressed. CAR T technology helps the T cell to activate and recognise cancer cells.

White blood cells are collected from the patient, then T cells are isolated and activated. Next, the T cells are engineered with the CAR gene, grown and expanded, and then infused back into the patient in a one-time treatment. Kite’s exciting work will require a capable local workforce, of course. Hiring and developing Saudi nationals in pivotal local and regional roles is an important success factor for Kite, so that our company and employees will support the growing Saudi economy as part of Vision 2030. We are also committed to building knowledge and capacity with our Saudi hospital partners, and we will conduct extensive training to upskill Healthcare Professionals at the oncology units of our future partner hospitals and clinics across Saudi Arabia.

We also believe in strategic partnerships and are building relationships with key facilities in Saudi Arabia’s oncology ecosystem to build capabilities, referrals, protocols and data generation. Our goal is to fundamentally change the way people think about cancer treatment by pushing the boundaries of what is possible with cell therapy — using genetically modified immune cells to target tumors in specific blood cancer patients.

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Tamer Akl is the Regional Medical Director at Kite Pharma

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