Amid the bombed-out biotech sector, early-stage developers of a new cancer immunotherapy have caught the eye of investors after some promising clinical news.

These companies are working on so-called CAR-T therapies, which work by ‘supercharging’ the body’s T-cells to fight cancers.

The genetically-engineered cells are grown by the millions in a lab and then re-injected, resulting in the patient getting a turbo-charged version of their T-cells.

CAR-T treatments are known to be effective with blood-based cancers such as leukemia, with six drugs approved in the US.

But an early-stage Italian clinical paediatric trial has shown encouraging results in the solid tumour neuroblastoma, a nerve tissue cancer that affects the adrenal glands.

Carried out at Rome’s Bambino Gesu Children’s Hospital, the study showed that nine of 27 of the enrolled children showed no sign of cancer after six weeks. Two later relapsed and died, bearing in mind that all the kids were in a bad way.

Potential enhanced efficacy aside, the treatment would be more patient-friendly than the current alternatives of chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery.

The news appeared to rub off on ASX CAR-T developers Chimeric Therapeutics (ASX:CHM) and Arovella Therapeutics (ASX:ALA), with their shares surging 16 per cent and 125 per cent respectively over the last month.

Chimeric’s main program is for the hard-to-treat brain cancer, glioblastoma. The treatment derives from the venom of the deathstalker scorpion: juice that sells for thousands of dollars a kilogram.

Fortunately for researchers the active ingredient is derived synthetically and they don’t have to chase the arachnids across the Sahara desert.

The scorpion toxin recognises a particular cancer biomarker.

Based on assets acquired from US universities and hospitals, Chimeric’s programs cover glioblastoma, acute myeloid leukemia and gastric and pancreatic cancers.

Chimeric chief Jennifer Chow says the issue du jour is whether CAR-T therapies work best as an autologous or allogeneic treatment. The efforts to date have focused on the former, which means the T cells are removed from and then returned to the specific patient.

The key advantage of allogeneic (off the shelf) treatments is that the cells can be derived from any healthy patient, ameliorating the high cost and time involved (four to six weeks) in engineering patient-derived cells.

Chow says there was a big push to develop allogeneic therapies, given the logistical advantages of not having to transport a particular patient’s blood across.

“But we haven’t seen any evidence that allogeneic therapies work as well as the autologous ones,” she says.

Arovella has a drug candidate to treat solid cancers including the big ones of triple negative breast, prostate, lung and pancreatic cancers.

But the company attracted interest this week when it confirmed that its off-the-shelf compound ALA-101 conferred a “significant anti-tumour effect and survival benefit in an aggressive leukemia model.”

Okay – it was tested on mice, but it was encouraging that the drug candidate worked well in an off-the-shelf context and after freezing.

Meanwhile, Prescient Therapeutics (ASX:PTX) runs a CAR-T program called Omnicar, a platform aimed at longer-lasting and more useful CAR-T cells.

Preclinical work has pertained to acute myeloid leukemia, cancers expressing the HER2-plus receptor and glioblastoma.

Other biotechs with CAR-T programs include the $860 million immunology house Imugene (ASX:IMU), with which Arovella is partnered; and the minnow AdAlta (ASX:1AD), which is mainly focused on non-cancer fibrotic conditions.

All of the companies are at early clinical or preclinical stage, but the potential prize is huge. The lymphoma drug Yescarta – the first CAR-T therapy to be approved – generates more than $US1 billion a year of revenue for its proud owner Gilead Sciences.

This story does not constitute financial product advice. You should consider obtaining independent advice before making any financial decisions.