The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday announced what the agency calls a "historic action" — the first approval of a cell-based gene therapy in the United States.
The FDA approved Kymriah, which scientists refer to as a "living drug" because it involves using genetically modified immune cells from patients to attack their cancer.
The drug was approved to treat children and young adults up to age 25 suffering from a form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia who do not respond to standard treatment or have suffered relapses.
The disease is a cancer of blood and bone marrow that is the most common childhood cancer in the United States. About 3,100 patients who are 20 and younger are diagnosed with ALL each year.
"We're entering a new frontier in medical innovation with the ability to reprogram a patient's own cells to attack a deadly cancer," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a written statement.
"New technologies such as gene and cell therapies hold out the potential to transform medicine and create an inflection point in our ability to treat and even cure many intractable illnesses," Gottlieb said.
The treatment involves removing immune system cells known as T cells from each patient and genetically modifying the cells in the laboratory to attack and kill leukemia cells. The genetically modified cells are then infused back into patients. It's also known as CAR-T cell therapy.
"Kymriah is a first-of-its-kind treatment approach that fills an important unmet need for children and young adults with this serious disease," said Peter Marks, director of the FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.
"Not only does Kymriah provide these patients with a new treatment option where very limited options existed, but a treatment option that has shown promising remission and survival rates in clinical trials," Marks said in the FDA statement.
The treatment, which is also called CTL019, produced remission within three months in 83 percent of 63 pediatric and young adult patients. The patients had failed to respond to standard treatments or had suffered relapses. Based on those results, an FDA advisory panel recommended the approval in July.
The treatment does carry risks, however, including a dangerous overreaction by the immune system known as cytokine-release syndrome. As a result, the FDA is requiring strong warnings.
In addition, the treatment will be initially available only at 32 hospitals and clinics that have been specially trained in administering the therapy.
Novartis, which developed the drug, says the one-time treatment will cost $475,000 for patients who respond. People who do not respond within a month would not be charged, and the company said it is taking additional steps to make sure everyone who needs the drug can afford it
But some patient advocates criticized the cost nevertheless.
"While Novartis' decision to set a price at $475,000 per treatment may be seen by some as restraint, we believe it is excessive," says David Mitchell, founder and president of Patients For Affordable Drugs. "Let's remember, American taxpayers invested over $200 million in CAR-T's discovery."