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I got a tour the other day of one of the most advanced drug manufacturing facilities in the world. It’s in Morristown, New Jersey, where 500 workers, many in super clean lab suits and sterile gloves, produce a brand new medicine to fight advanced prostate cancer. It could be the serious disease your father or grandfather can develop. This kind of prostate cancer isn’t treated successfully just with surgery or radiation – it keeps advancing and can shorten life.
The good news is the medicine produced in this plant, Provenge, is part of a new group of medicines, not just for advanced prostate cancer, but for what had been seen as other “terminal” conditions. What is exciting is that these medicines use your own immune system to fight the cancer your immune cells failed to recognize and kill the first time around. The treatment is also exciting because it is another example of “personalized medicine” where the medicine you receive is different from another person with the same disease because your biology is a little bit different.
In the case of Provenge, a man with advanced prostate cancer is sent to the local Red Cross to have some of his cells drawn – almost like giving blood. The cells are sent by plane to the plant in New Jersey where the lab workers are waiting in their super clean processing rooms. For over two days, they create supercharged immune cells made from the man’s own blood. Then, without delay, the medicine is flown back to his home city where he receives it as an infusion. This time the man is getting his own cells to rev up his immune system and knock back the prostate cancer.
It is not a cure, but I have been meeting men who are alive and doing well after a year or two or even six who most likely would not be alive today without the treatment. As with anything that is new, not all doctors know about or have experience with this therapy. Immunotherapy, as it is called, was controversial, but not anymore. The FDA has approved two drugs in this class and more are coming.