Whenever a therapy falters in the late stages of development after a decade or more of costly clinical testing, there’s a tendency for disappointment over that failure to cloud the prospects of the entire category. That has often been the case with anticancer immunotherapy, as advocates of using the patient’s own immune system to battle cancers have faced skepticism in research and investment circles when strategies have failed.
Today, of course, such skepticism over immunotherapy seems part of a distant past. Indeed, we are in the era of immunotherapy. Checkpoint inhibitors are leading the way, a trend that started with ipilimumab and has continued with pembrolizumab and nivolumab. On the horizon is chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy, which is notching impressive early results in hematologic malignancies.
But what about anticancer vaccines? Although the portfolio of preventive cancer vaccines has grown, sipuleucel-T remains the only therapeutic vaccine to gain the FDA’s approval. The difficulties in translating this option for men with prostate cancer into an economically viable agent, along with several recent late-stage failures in non–small cell lung cancer, have dimmed the spotlight on vaccines.
Yet research into anticancer vaccines is moving forward on several fronts, as we report in the story, “Cancer Vaccine Field Remains Lively Despite Setbacks
.” In fact, the FDA is reviewing an application for TVEC (talimogene laherparepvec) in metastatic melanoma and the agency has designated the combination of two vaccines, GVAX Pancreas and CRS-207, as a breakthrough therapy in pancreatic cancer.
We talked with several of the nation’s leading anticancer vaccine experts about strategies they think will succeed for these types of immunotherapy. The variety of complex approaches is a testament to the ingenuity of scientists working in this field. To be sure, there will be more stumbling on the road to new vaccines. Now, however, not only has the validity of immunotherapy been firmly established, but some previously approved drugs also are being evaluated in terms of their impact on the immune system.
So the future is bright for immunotherapy— and that includes vaccines.