We commend for your New Year’s reading the review article entitled “Cancer immunotherapy comes of age” in the 22 December 2011 issue of Nature. It was written by Drs. Ira Mellman (Genentech), George Coukos (University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine), and Glenn Dranoff (Department of Medical Oncology and Cancer Vaccine Center, Dana-Farber Cancer Center/Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA).
As you may recall, Genentech’s Dr. Mellman was mentioned in our November 25, 2011 blog article on Dr. Ralph Steinman. Dr. Mellman was a former member of Dr. Steinman’s lab, and he was one of the researchers who helped plan the strategy for the immunotherapy-based treatment of Dr. Steinman’s own pancreatic cancer.
The review by Dr. Mellman and his colleagues is truly comprehensive. It covers research and events in drug development in cancer immunotherapy that we also discussed in the following 2011 blog articles:
- March 30, 2011: FDA approves ipilimumab (Medarex/Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Yervoy) for treatment of metastatic melanoma.
- April 27, 2011: Adoptive immunotherapy for metastatic melanoma?
- November 25, 2011: Ralph Steinman, dendritic cell vaccines, and clinical trials.
- December 26, 2011: The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine–Innate and Adaptive Immunity.
The Nature review ties all these subjects and events together, and gives additional in-depth information on each of them. For example, in discussing adoptive immunotherapy for cancer with tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs), the review presents new studies on the use of T-cell engineering and bispecific antibodies. Such methods may enable researchers and clinicians to get beyond the need for resectable tumors harboring reactive T cells, or even allow them to stimulate TILs in situ, thus avoiding the need to isolate and culture autologous T cells altogether.
Both the new Nature review and the discussions on our blog show that 2011 was a big year for cancer immunotherapy. The past year was proceeded by the 2010 approval of the first ever cancer vaccine, sipuleucel-T (Dendreon’s Provenge) for prostate cancer. 2011 saw the approval of ipilimumab (Medarex/Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Yervoy), and the awarding of a Nobel Prize for discoveries with profound implications for the development of cancer immunotherapies.
The importance for cancer immunotherapy of the discoveries represented by this Nobel Prize was vividly illustrated by the survival of Ralph Steinman an almost incredible four-and-a-half years after his being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, while receiving a series of immunotherapy treatments along with conventional chemotherapy. (Although there is no way to know whether any of the treatments was responsible for Dr. Steinman’s unexpectedly long survival, participating researchers agree that this one-patient experimental treatment moved the cancer immunotherapy field forward.)
The Nature review concludes that despite the long history of cancer immunotherapy, these are early days for research and clinical practice in the field. (This is typical for a premature technology! Nevertheless, the review concludes, cancer immunotherapy has come of age.
The review goes on to suggest that cancer immuntherapies might be used in combination with the new targeted therapies, such as vemurafenib (Plexxikon/Roche’s Zelboraf; PLX4032) and crizotinib (Pfizer’s Xalkori), which were approved in 2011. These targeted agents can give “significant and sometimes spectacular responses in several indications.” However, even the most dramatic responses are usually followed by drug resistance and relapse. If targeted therapies can be given with the appropriate immunotherapies, it might be possible to achieve long-term, durable responses.
This is the last article on the Biopharmconsortium Blog for 2011. We at Haberman Associates wish you all a very Happy New Year, and look forward to interacting with you in 2012.
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