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T-Cell Therapy, Zika Virus, and Autism Screening

Published on February 19, 2016 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 3 months 1 week ago


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It’s time for another roundup of CHOP research news and commentary that hit the news cycle this week. New findings in cancer immunotherapy, controversy over recommendations for universal autism screening, and Zika virus are among this week’s highlights.    

Immunotherapy Improvements

“Our main finding is that younger T cells are critically important in T cell immunotherapy,” said CHOP pediatric oncologist David Barrett, MD, PhD. “Collecting and expanding these cells could increase the number of children with cancer who could benefit from this innovative treatment.”

In a study published in Science Translational Medicine, Dr. Barrett collaborated with CHOP and Penn Medicine investigators including Stephan Grupp, MD, PhD, to find insights and laboratory techniques that may advance an investigational treatment that has received national attention. The method uses patients’ own immune T cells, reprogrammed into a type called Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T cells, to treat children with relapsed or refractory leukemia.

In related news this week, CHOP’s major partners in CAR T cell immunotherapy research, Penn Medicine and the global pharmaceutical company Novartis, unveiled the Novartis-Penn Center for Advanced Cellular Therapeutics (CACT). Located on Penn Medicine’s campus, the CACT is poised to become an epicenter for research and early development of personalized cellular therapies for cancer, expanding CAR technology, according to the Penn Medicine press release.

Read back over the most recently presented results from CHOP and Penn clinical trials of this experimental therapy in December, when researchers reported that 93 percent of pediatric patients in the trial reached remission, among other findings.

Read more about the CACT in the Penn Medicine press release. Read more about the new findings on the importance of younger T cells in the CHOP press release.

Universal Early Autism Screening Controversy Continues

Despite the controversy that ensued when the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) issued draft recommendations last summer saying there was insufficient evidence to endorse routine screening of all toddlers for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), this week that panel stuck with this policy in issuing its final recommendations.

“What the research has shown is that some parents may not be aware of the signs and symptoms,” Susan Levy, MD, MPH told Disability Scoop. “The well-child visit is brief. If you’re depending on signs you see during the visit or parents bringing up issues, you’re going to miss some kids.”

Dr. Levy, director of the Regional Autism Center at CHOP, chairs the autism subcommittee of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends universal early screening for autism, contradicting the USPSTF.

To learn more about the evidence underlying these groups’ conflicting recommendations, see a Q&A with CHOP autism experts David Mandell, ScD, and Juhi Pandey, PhD, and an article in our 2015 Research Annual Report about CHOP research showing autism is difficult to detect during routine clinical visits.

Zika Virus and Microcephaly Demystified

The global health community is alert to concerns about Zika virus, recently declared an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization. Researchers are hard at work determining the nature of its association to a rise in cases of microcephaly in babies born in areas where the infection is spreading.

Helping to clear up common questions about Zika and microcephaly, Susan Coffin, MD, MPH, the clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at CHOP, answered questions about the virus on CHOP’s PolicyLab blog.

David Bearden, MD, a pediatric neurologist at CHOP who has focused much of his research on congenital infections that can cause microcephaly, discussed this condition in a Q&A on