Swedish cancer specialists achieve cellular therapy milestone


In this article:

  • Cancer specialists at Swedish achieve a major milestone by administering 100 cellular therapy treatments to provide leading-edge care for blood cancer patients.

  • Cellular therapies, like CAR T-cell therapy, help the patient’s immune system destroy cancer cells, offering an effective treatment option that can lead to prolonged remission or even a cure.

  • Two of our cancer specialists discuss how clinical research and Cellular therapies at Swedish are giving new hope to patients with cancer.

In just four years, cancer specialists at Swedish Cancer Institute have administered 100 cellular therapy treatments – bringing hope and healing to patients with blood cancer. The accomplishment is a significant milestone few cancer centers in the region have achieved.

CAR-T cell therapy is a type of cellular immunotherapy that uses a patient’s T-cells to boost their immune system’s ability to fight cancer.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first CAR-T cell therapy in late 2017. In 2018, Swedish began using the innovative treatment in clinical trials. They completed their 100th treatment in late December 2022.

“Within a really short time period, we’ve developed a lot of experience and expertise using this therapy. And because it is so limited in terms of availability around the country, reaching the milestone of 100 treatments in that timeframe is something we’re very proud of,” says Krish Patel, M.D., director of Hematologic Malignancies and Cellular Therapy at the Swedish Cancer Institute’s Center for Blood Disorders and Cellular Therapy.

Changing lives one patient at a time 

“When we think about who is getting treated with cellular therapies, in general, it’s people who’ve run out of all their standard options. They’ve been through chemo, radiation and other treatments. Without cell therapies like CAR-T, they don’t have a very good shot at survival. By comparison, 40% of patients getting CAR-T get long-term control of their cancer,” explains Sara Jo Grethlein, M.D., MBA, FACP, executive medical director of the Swedish Cancer Institute.

“This number of 100 represents that we as a center are able to deliver this very specialized type of therapy to patients not just in Washington but around the Pacific Northwest. We’ve treated patients from Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. We’re very excited to be able to offer these types of therapies to patients in the region that might benefit from their use,” says Dr. Patel. “Prior to our program, there was only one place in the state of Washington that offered CAR-T cell therapy and it had a waiting list. That means they had patients who could benefit from the therapy but couldn't provide it in a timely way. Our program absolutely extends the reach of available care,” he adds. 

“That’s 100 people who’ve gone through the selection process and received this therapy. One hundred people who received the immunosuppressive drugs they needed, chemotherapy to prepare for the cellular therapy infusion and then the therapy itself. One hundred people who we supported through the recovery. That's really huge,” says Dr. Grethlein.

What’s next for CAR-T cell therapy at Swedish?  

“Quite a lot is different now than when we started. We’ve come a long way in managing side effects and toxicity. The safety of giving CAR-T cells has improved and we’ve learned as a community how to manage the related side effects better,’ says Dr. Patel.

“We used to only give the CAR-T cell therapies in the hospital. Now we give most of them in the clinic and see people outside the hospital for follow-up visits. We’re one of the first centers in the country to do primarily outpatient-based CAR-T cell therapy for all the CAR T-cell products we offer,” he adds.

“The 100-plus patients we’ve treated are all patients with blood cancers. One of the areas that our program is now starting to support is the use of these cellular therapies in patients that have solid tumor cancers. In the next couple of years, there might even be applications of these treatments for non-cancer illnesses, such as autoimmune diseases. So, you know, we’re exploring all of those things now and using our expertise and experience to develop better treatments in those areas,” says Dr. Patel.

Today’s research brings tomorrow’s answers

“To do cancer care in 2023, you have to be doing research. The answers we have today are better than they were last year, five years ago and 10 years ago, but they’re not as good as they will be tomorrow. And we need to be part of finding the next answers. And that's how we’re going to change the future,” says Dr. Grethlein.

“The research part of our cell therapy program improves access, not just regionally but nationally. We’ve had patients travel from across the country to receive these cellular therapies with us because some of those therapies may be available in even fewer centers. In some cases, maybe only five to seven centers in the country are participating in those trials,” says Dr. Patel.

“About 40% of the patients we treat with cellular therapy infusion are getting treatment through a clinical trial. These treatments are not necessarily available at every center that does CAR-T cell therapies. That’s very exciting for us. We’re able to give treatment that others have helped develop – and that's great. But we’re also able to help develop the next generation of these therapies,” says Dr. Patel.

Support from within enables success 

“Doing cancer research, or any medical research, is challenging. You have to be detail-oriented and have a great support team. You need to make sure you collect all the data at the time that you’re supposed to collect the data and make sure that all the safeguards to protect patients are respected. Having the infrastructure in place to care for these patients is critically important. And that means everyone – the nurses, the office staff, the behind-the-scenes people and the blood bank. It’s not just about the cancer doctors. It’s about the whole team,” says Dr. Grethlein.

“The Swedish health system very much supports our ability to do clinical research,” says Dr. Patel. “We’re able to be very nimble in our approach to delivering these types of treatments. One of the things about being a younger cellular therapy program is that we aren’t necessarily married to how we’ve done it for years and years. We have the available resources to explore different ways of giving these treatments – always with the mindset of: can we improve access to the treatment? Can we improve the safety? Can we improve the experience for the patient? We can be creative and innovative and thoughtful,” says Dr. Patel.

“This is the heart of what we do at Swedish. We combine high-tech care with a caring approach that focuses on meeting all our patients’ health needs. We are here for our patients. They are wrapped in a blanket of support all the way through their cancer journey,” says Dr. Grethlein.


Learn more and find a provider

If you have questions about our innovative cancer care, contact the Swedish Cancer Institute. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction, and follow up as needed. If you need to find a provider, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Fighting cancer with clinical research

The hard work of hope: Swedish celebrates research for Clinical Trials Day

At Swedish, Sara Jo Grethlein, M.D., MBA, leads a transformational moment in cancer research and care

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

The Swedish Cancer Team is committed to bringing you the most up-to-date insights about treatments, prevention, care and support available. We know cancer diagnoses strain you both mentally and physically, and we hope to provide a small piece of hope to you or your loved ones who are fighting the cancer battle with useful and clinically-backed advice.

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