N.S. to become first Atlantic province to offer potentially life-saving cancer treatment

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Dr. Helmut Hollenhorts, senior medical director of Nova Scotia Health's Cancer Care Program, said the new therapy could be the difference between life and death for some patients. (Robert Guertin/CBC - image credit)
Dr. Helmut Hollenhorts, senior medical director of Nova Scotia Health's Cancer Care Program, said the new therapy could be the difference between life and death for some patients. (Robert Guertin/CBC - image credit)

Nova Scotians fighting some types of lymphoma will soon be able to receive a potentially life-saving therapy in their home province.

A new CAR T-cell treatment program is being made possible through $18 million in investments in cancer care announced Monday by the provincial government.

CAR T-cell therapy is a method of immunotherapy that modifies a person's immune cells or T-cells in a way that the cells are able to detect the cancer and fight it within the patient for the rest of their lives.

About $6.7 million of that funding will be spent annually on the new therapy.

"This will literally be the difference between life and death for patients diagnosed with certain types of cancer," said Dr. Helmut Hollenhorst, the senior medical director of Nova Scotia Health's Cancer Care Program.

Robert Guertin/CBC
Robert Guertin/CBC

Hollenhorst said that non-Hodgkin's lymphomas are the fifth most common cancers in Canada and advances in treatment can now cure the illness in about two-thirds of patients.

But the remaining third are only expected to survive for about six months when cancer recurs, he said.

"The CAR T-cell is a type of personalized medicine that has the potential to cure non-Hodgkin's lymphoma when other treatment methods are not available," said Hollenhorst.

The therapy has been approved by Health Canada but specialist staff and equipment are needed, so the proposal for the new program took a couple of years to come to fruition.

About eight patients every year travel from Nova Scotia to Boston for the treatment but others decide not to go due to extra financial costs and added stress to their families.

It's expected now the treatment will be available in Halifax that double that number will take what Hollenhorst describes as a last chance treatment.

"We are committed to providing Nova Scotians with the cancer care and support they need, closer to home," said Health and Wellness Minister Zach Churchill. "These changes add another treatment option not previously available in Nova Scotia and will expand eligibility and ensure patients pay less for travel, accommodations, supplies and cancer drugs."

Robert Guertin/CBC
Robert Guertin/CBC

Churchill said conversations will happen with other Atlantic provinces about the possibility of residents from neighbouring provinces being able to access the treatment.

The Nova Scotia government will also spend $11.1 million in the next three years to reduce out-of-pocket costs for travel, accommodations, supplies and cancer drugs for patients.

About $225,000 of that money will go to the Canadian Cancer Society's Dr. Susan K Roberts Lodge That Gives, which provides free accommodations for people who live outside Halifax while they undergo cancer treatment.

Churchill said the new funds being announced are the result of the 2018 review of cancer services in Yarmouth that included input from patients, physicians, staff and people in the community.

The new CAR T-cell therapy is expected to be available in six months at the QEII Health Sciences Centre.

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