AI and nanotechnology could make cancer cell therapy affordable for all

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Professor Liesbet Lagae, Director of Life Science Technology Activities at IMEC and teaches Nanobiotechnology, KU Leuven


  • CAR-T therapy can cure terminally ill cancer patients but it is prohibitively expensive, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  • Leveraging recent advances in chip technology scientists can create and mass produce small machines to re-engineer the immune system.
  • But the scientific community needs public-private partnerships to ensure this medical breakthrough becomes accessible to everyone.

After suffering 16 months of chemotherapy for her leukaemia, treatment options for six-year-old Emily Whitehead had run out. Her parents began to fear the worst. As a last-ditch effort, the University of Pennsylvania enrolled Emily in a clinical trial that involved reprogramming her immune cells to destroy her cancer. The results were phenomenal. Emily not only survived, but nine years later she is a healthy teenager with no cancer.

Behind Emily’s recovery is CAR-T (Chimeric Antigen Receptor T cells ) a cell-based therapy that has become a revolutionary weapon in the treatment of previously incurable blood cancers.

CAR-T cell therapy genetically modifies a patient’s immune cells to hunt and kill cancer cells. It is a form of personalized immunotherapy that can provide lasting remissions, even to terminally ill patients who have just months to live and for whom classic treatment options have not worked.

More than 400 clinical trials of CAR-T therapies are currently in progress. Their impact could be enormous. According to the World Health Organization, cancer causes one in six deaths worldwide. Personalized cell therapy has the potential to save millions of lives. Preliminary data even suggests that engineering immune cells may one day be used to treat heart failure, autoimmune diseases, diabetes and HIV.

Why does CAR-T cost so much?

But unit economics are hobbling the rollout of CAR-T to the full number of patients whose lives it could save. The treatment alone can cost up to $475,000 and US hospitals can charge as much as $1.5 million to administer it, once ancillary costs are taken into account.

So why this high price? With conventional therapies, drug makers get economies of scale: the more they produce, the cheaper each dose becomes.

But CAR-T is tailor-made for each patient, and behind every treatment lies a highly sophisticated process, which is time-consuming and brutally expensive. https://player.vimeo.com/video/54668275?title=1&byline=1&portrait=1&autoplay=0

The patient’s immune cells are collected, purified in various steps, genetically modified, formulated at the right dose and reinfused. This complex manufacturing process requires shipments to different labs and frequent manual interventions, which introduce the risk of human error and potentially life-threatening side effects. Compounded by the fact that CAR-T consists of living cells that vary in potency, manufacturers need to continuously test results throughout the process.

The result is a production time that can take weeks, and an unaffordable price. Unless these economics change, this treatment will not reach patients whose lives it could save – it will only reach those privileged enough to afford it.

Technology holds the key to reducing costs

There is, however, hope. The most recent insights in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI), biosensors, and the Internet of Things could help overcome the current roadblocks in making personalized cell therapies affordable.

The solution to democratize these therapies lies in automating their manufacturing process, which would reduce the cost, time, and risks significantly. This will require several engineering breakthroughs but is technically possible.

Recent advances in chip technology provide inspiration. The modern world’s insatiable demand for better computers, gaming consoles, and smartphones has resulted in the extreme miniaturization of transistors – the components which drive technology’s processing capacity – as more transistors on smaller circuits enables new and stronger technological abilities. healthcare

What is the World Economic Forum doing about healthcare value and spending?

Each year, $3.2 trillion is spent on global healthcare making little or no impact on good health outcomes.

To address this issue, the World Economic Forum created the Global Coalition for Value in Healthcare to accelerate value-based health systems transformation.

This council partners with governments, leading companies, academia, and experts from around the world to co-design and pilot innovative new approaches to person-centered healthcare.

Enormous capital spending has gone into chip engineering, resulting in the development of materials and systems on scales so small a new window of opportunities opens up: the ability to screen, select, and even genetically modify cells.

If we leverage these techniques to advance medical research, modern technology holds the potential to create and mass produce small machines that are able to re-engineer the immune system. The result would be a true revolution in the treatment of diseases, unparalleled in effectiveness and safety.

What can governments do?

Speaking on behalf of the research community, we see four ways governments can accelerate progress:

  • Invest in infrastructure that supports joint technology and clinical R&D.
  • Allow us to work together more easily.
  • Harmonize regulations.
  • Provide longer-term research grants.

Various small scale infrastructure investments have already been made. By aligning strategies and pooling resources, governments can advance research dramatically.

The conventional approach to develop drug candidates that split discovery, clinical trials and manufacturing will not work as pharmaceutical companies are faced with the novel challenge of re-engineering living cells, which requires new and highly advanced manufacturing processes.

Programmes will therefore need to be designed in which both knowledge and infrastructure are shared simultaneously, allowing medical researchers to use technology they would otherwise not be able to access, while letting engineers further develop it.

Building the right ecosystems in which the necessary skill sets are combined will be crucial for these therapies’ overall success. Interdisciplinary collaboration between life scientists and experts in AI and nanoelectronics will be needed, as well as partnerships between pharmaceutical and technology companies.

Legislators should update and harmonize policies when possible to ensure restrictive regulations do not stall technological progress and consider reforming science funding. Even top academics can spend as much as half their time writing out applications for short-term grants. It is wasted time they are not spending in the lab.

Both US President Joe Biden and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have pledged to rid the world of cancer. But any plan that does not include a detailed roadmap on how to make CAR-T therapy affordable is bound to fail.

Patient-derived cell therapies have the potential of saving lives when conventional approaches fail. However, with a price tag of hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single treatment, these therapies will remain far from accessible. The world is counting on its leaders to build the public-private partnerships that will ensure this significant medical breakthrough becomes accessible to everyone who needs it.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

International community agrees on a road map for resolving the tax challenges arising from digitalisation of the economy

‘Crimes against humanity,’ ‘war crimes’ and risk of new ethnic violence in DR Congo, warn UN experts

Statement by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría on the outcome of COP 25

‘Maintain calm’ and ‘exercise patience’ UN envoy urges, as Nigeria heads to polls

The refugee crisis seen through the eyes of a young doctor from Turkey

Cleantech innovation is being stifled. Here’s how to unlock it

Basel III rules relaxed: Banks got it all but become more prone to crisis

These are the world’s 10 most innovative economies

4 myths about corruption

How to reimagine our cities as hubs for biodiversity, conservation and climate resilience

OECD and European Commission join forces to further support structural reforms in European countries

3 ways to protect LGBTI rights across the world

Commission disburses €14 billion under SURE to nine Member States

Protecting refugees in Europe: UNHCR calls for a ‘year of change’

‘Bicycle Kingdom’ makes a comeback, as China seeks solutions to tackle air pollution crisis

GSMA Announces First Keynote Speakers for 2019 “MWC Los Angeles, in Partnership with CTIA”

Palliative Care: A Gap to fill in healthcare service

5G will redefine entire business models. Here’s how

‘Catastrophic’ healthcare costs put mothers and newborns at risk

The Eurogroup protects Germany and blames others

How to talk about climate change: 5 tips from the front lines

Global Cooperation for Local Action: Fighting antimicrobial resistance

The future of crypto-assets, from opportunities to policy implications

This is what different countries are doing to stop coronavirus from spreading

Future-proofing the European banking market – removing the obstacles to exit

Why trade wars have no winners

Ηealth’s foundation is falling apart: what can we do about it?

European Commission and European Investment Fund launch €75 million BlueInvest Fund

Trade war or not New York bankers will have it their way

How building renovations can speed up the electric vehicle revolution

European Youth Capital 2018 : Cascais

Central African Republic: Guterres says UN mission committed to protecting civilians, helping stabilize country, as violence flares

Turkey needs to step up investment in renewables to curb emissions

Commissioner for Crisis Management in Kabul: EU steps up humanitarian assistance with €32 million

Senior UN children’s advocate says they ‘should never be targeted by violence’

A Sting Exclusive, the European Commissioner for Energy Günther Oettinger writes for the Sting on “EU Industry: a major energizer”

Chart of the day: These are the cities where the World Cup threatens productivity the most

Wash your hands, but keep your mind clean

Human rights breaches in Bangladesh, Cuba and Vietnam

New UN-supported farming app is cream of crop in tackling Sahel pest

Privatisation and public health: a question of Human Rights

Can this billion-dollar initiative save the world’s tropical forests?

European Investment Bank to borrow €70 billion in 2013

‘These are very dark times for Yemen’: senior UN official on air strike mass casualties

Why and how did ISIS and Muslim fundamentalism gain momentum this year?

Brexit: when the hubris of one man can set the UK, the EU and the entire world on fire

Warmongers ready to chew what is left of social protection spending

State aid: Commission refers United Kingdom to European Court for failure to fully recover illegal tax exemption aid of up to around €100 million in Gibraltar

Youth Forum calls on Parliament to ease entry into Europe for young people

Better sanitation for India is in the pipeline

Why transparency in drug pricing is more complicated than it seems

COVID-19: faster authorisation for vaccines adapted to variants

As inequality grows, the UN fights for a fairer world

DiscoverEU: 20,000 more young people will explore Europe in 2020

‘Undersea gardeners’ are restoring Jamaica’s lost coral reefs

The global response to the coronavirus pandemic must not be undermined by bribery

Banks must take bold action to fight climate change. This is how they can do it

COVID-19 threatens the developing world’s small businesses. This is how to save them

Chronic illnesses: UN stands up to stop 41 million avoidable deaths per year

Mediterranean migrant drownings should spur greater action by European countries, urge UN agencies

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s