The Shifting Landscape Toward Immunotherapies

By Ed Rabinowitz
Published: Monday, May 17, 2010
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Research and development in cancer has made a seismic shift toward immunotherapies, like anticancer vaccines, and the resulting tremor can be felt in the hallways and laboratories of drug and biotechnology companies large and small. According to Immunotherapy Demystified: Investing in High Risk, High Reward Opportunities in Cancer Therapeutics, an ebook released by the Parenteau BioConsultants and BioRankings Alliance, it is projected that by 2014, three of the top ten drugs will be anticancer immunotherapeutics. In addition, forecasters expect immunotherapeutics to dominate revenue streams in the coming decade.

“Market projections are notoriously prone to overexaggeration early on,” said Hal Siegel, PhD, chief scientific officer for Arizona-based ImmuneRegen BioSciences, a wholly owned subsidiary of IR BioSciences Holdings, Inc. “However, I think the promise in the field right now is pretty enticing, because the potential is so great.”

“It’s been a learning process. I think the agents we have available today are simply more potent and more effective than [those] we’ve had in the past. And, at least in terms of immunology, we’re really beginning to understand how cancers evade the immune system.” 

                                                                        –Howard Kaufman, MD

                                                                          Rush University Medical Center, Chicago

Why now?

Vaccines are an interesting story. They have been around for more than 200 years, thanks in part to English physician Edward Jenner. For his work in developing the smallpox vaccine in 1797, Jenner is considered the father of immunology. Much has been accomplished since then, evidenced by a plethora of immunizations. Of course, most of these vaccines are designed to prevent disease, whereas the bulk of vaccines being investigated in cancer are meant to stimulate immune responses in people who have a cancer diagnosis. Only recently has progress begun to inch forward where cancer vaccines are concerned.

“It’s been a learning process,” explained Howard Kaufman, MD, head of the cancer program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “I think the agents we have available today are simply more potent and more effective than [those] we’ve had in the past. And, at least in terms of immunology, we’re really beginning to understand how cancers evade the immune system.” Kaufman said a better understanding of cancer’s suppressant mechanisms is changing the way researchers and immunologists are approaching vaccine development.

Andrew Parsa, MD, with the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Brain Tumor Research Center, agrees. Researchers have learned that some types of cancer are extremely resistant to the immune system, Parsa said, and even within a single cancer type, certain subtypes exhibit more resistance to the immune system. “I think one of the goals over the next few years is to figure out who are the best patients for cancer vaccines,” Parsa said, “and which vaccine is best to give to a particular patient.”

The “need” factor

Randal Chase, PhD, president and CEO of Immunovaccine, Inc, a biotechnology company based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, believes the increased focus on anticancer immunotherapies and vaccines stems from an unmet need. When surgeons remove a primary tumor, or at least as much as they can see, they have no way to know whether metastasis has occurred, he explained. This is why patients are subjected to adjuvant radiation or chemotherapy, which Chase asserts can be brutal.

“The dilemma with chemotherapy is that not only is it brutal, it’s not completely effective,” Chase said. He explained that rogue cancer cells often survive unharmed by chemotherapy because they were not in a growth cycle. “The need still remains to be able to track down those rogue cancer cells wherever they are and kill them,” said Chase.

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