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Finland to offer cutting-edge child cancer therapy

Finland is piloting a costly cancer therapy for children suffering from leukemia that involves giving patients genetically modified immune cells.

Kaksi laboratoriohoitajaa käyttävät CliniMACS-konetta.
Image: Tero Kyllönen / Yle

Following the lead of the Unites Stated and other Nordics, Finland will now provide CAR-T cell therapy, stimulating the immune system to fight cancer.

In the 1960s, most children in Finland diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells, died within a year. But today stem cell therapies have raised the survival rate for childhood leukemia to 80 percent. Another ten children a year in Finland could benefit from cutting-edge cancer therapy, which will now be offered at university hospitals in Helsinki and Turku.

The treatment centres on laboratory-engineered T cells being infused back into the patient where they recognise and destroy cancer cells.

Trials have shown that a single treatment may be enough for leukemia to go into remission. The European Medicines Agency approved commercial CAR-T cell therapies last autumn.

”The therapy cost about half a million dollars when it launched on the US market last year, but now the price has come down to about 300,000 euros for one dose,” explained Maija Itälä-Remes, who heads Turku University’s stem cell programme.

Last hope

Itälä-Remes said the treatment may be a viable option for about ten young leukemia patients annually.

The Finnish Medicines Agency Fimea said CAR-T cell therapy was a cost-effective treatment option for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, even with the price tag initially reaching 450,000 euros.

”While early results are promising, we know little about long-term effects, as the therapy also damages healthy cells,” she said.

British cancer scientist Mel Greaves has meanwhile suggested that babies’ reduced contact with germs is causing their immune systems to react in abnormal ways to infections, potentially triggering mutations resulting in childhood leukemia.

Itälä-Remes of Turku University Hospital said that while much research has focused on the relationship between infections and cancer, results have been inconclusive.

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