Cancer immunotherapy revisited


Macrophages attack a cancer cell

An article in the June 2012 issue of OncologyLive, authored by the publication’s senior editor, Anita T. Shaffer, reviews cancer immunotherapies now in late-stage clinical trials, and discusses the prospects for the field.

The article begins with a discussion of the recent renaissance of cancer immunotherapy, as exemplified by the April 2010 FDA approval of Dendreon’s Sipuleucel-T (APC8015, Provenge) and the March 2011 FDA approval of Ipilimumab [Medarex/Bristol-Myers Squibb’s (BMS’) Yervoy]. It then went on to discuss the exciting Phase 1 results with Medarex/BMS’ anti-PD-1 MAb, which we featured in the June 28, 2012 article on the Biopharmconsortium Blog.

But the bulk of the article was a discussion of the current late-stage (Phase 3) active immunotherapy pipeline. The article’s table lists 14 such agents. If one eliminates Cel-Sci/Teva’s Multikine (which is a mixture of cytokines), that leaves 13 agents, at least most of which can be described as therapeutic cancer vaccines. These products range from dendritic cell vaccines to tumor cell-based vaccines and viruses that encode tumor antigens.

For example, Argos Therapeutics‘ AGS-003 (Arcelis) is an autologous dendritic cell vaccine loaded with the patient’s own messenger RNA (mRNA). This vaccine is in Phase 3 clinical trials in patients with newly diagnosed metastatic renal cell carcinoma (mRCC). We mentioned Argos and its technology in our November 25, 2011 article on the late Ralph Steinman, MD, who had discovered the dendritic cell and elucidated its central role in the immune system. Dr. Steinman was a cofounder of Argos. Patient mRNA in Argos’ cellular immunotherapy product encode tumor antigens, which are expressed on the surface of the dendritic cells. The dendritic cells then potentiate the production of tumor antigen-specific T cells which attack the patient’s tumor.

According to a July 2 2012 company news release, AGS-003 is a fully personalized immunotherapy that preferentially targets mutated tumor antigens, which drive disease progression. Patient T cells recognize these antigens as foreign. This enables AGS-003 to direct a specific and potent anti-tumor immune response, without attacking normal tissues.

In a Phase 2 study of a combination of AGS-003 and sunitinib (Pfizer’s Sutent, the standard of care for mRCC), researchers demonstrated a statistically significant correlation between the number of anti-tumor T cells induced and overall survival in mRCC patients receiving AGS-003. Adding AGS-003 to sunitinib doubled overall survival for these patients compared to historical results for unfavorable risk patients treated with sunitinib alone. Over 50 percent of patients in the study survived longer than 30 months after initiating therapy, which is four times the expected rate for sunitinib.

Another type of cancer vaccine is based on modified cancer cells. In our Steinman article, this strategy is represented by BioSante’s GVAX cancer vaccines [now licensed by Aduro BioTech (Berkeley, CA)]. One such vaccine, GVAX Pancreas for pancreatic cancer (which is now in clinical trials) is based on human pancreatic cancer cell lines that have been engineered to secrete the immunostimulant granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF), and have then been lethally irradiated. Since the most advanced GVAX products are in Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials, GVAX was not covered in the OncologyLive article.

However, other more advanced immunotherapies, such as NewLink Genetics‘ HyperAcute Pancreas cancer immunotherapy (in Phase 3 trials), also consist of modified cancer cells. HyperAcute Pancreas consists of equal parts of two separate allogeneic pancreatic cancer cell lines engineered to express α-galactosidase (an enzyme that is not expressed by natural human pancreatic tumors).

Another type of cancer vaccine is based on viruses that encode tumor antigens. For example, Bavarian Nordic A/S’ PROSTVAC, a treatment for prostate cancer, is a  sequentially dosed combination of vaccinia and fowlpox poxviruses that encode an altered, more immunogenic form of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) plus three immune enhancing costimulatory molecules ( B7.1, ICAM-1, and Lfa-3).

The late-stage immunotherapies listed in the table in the OncologyLive article include cancer vaccines that represent several design strategies other than the three mentioned here.

Some good news about sipuleucel-T

The OncologyLive article also referred to an abstract presented at the 2012 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting, which suggests that the survival advantage for prostate cancer patients treated with sipuleucel-T was significantly greater than the 4.1-month benefit reported in the Phase 3 trial that led to approval of the agent. The analysis reported in this abstract indicates that the overall survival treatment benefit with sipilleucel-T ranged from 4.1 months to  7.8 months.


As illustrated by the number of late-stage cancer immunotherapies in development, as well as the approval of two drugs in 2010 and 2011, cancer immunotherapy is here to stay. One question in the use of such immunotherapies, as highlighted in the OncologyLive article, is how they will be integrated with such established modalities as cytotoxic chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted cancer therapies.

Another factor is cost. A course of treatment with sipuleucel-T costs $93,000, and the cost of a course of treatment with ipilimumab is $120,000. However, as pointed out in the OncologyLive article, the total cost of treatment with other modalities that may continue for months or years may be higher. Nevertheless, the cost of cancer therapies, especially those that only increase overall survival by a few months, is a great concern to patients, physicians, and payers.

It must be remembered, however, that nearly all cancer therapies, when first introduced to the market, gave only slightly enhanced survival over older treatments. However, as oncologists learned how to use the therapies better (e.g., with changes in dosing, use in other groups of cancer patients, and/or use in combination therapies), numerous therapies eventually gave long-term remissions or even cures and proved to be cost-effective indeed.

Another issue with the cancer immunotherapy field, as pointed out in the OncologyLive article, is the difficulty of raising capital for cancer immunotherapy specialty companies. This is especially true in the current market, where most biotech companies have difficulty in raising capital. However, what venture capitalists and Big Pharma consider to be “premature technologies” or “unproven” emerging early-stage areas, as is usually the case, have particular difficulty in attracting investment.

Nevertheless, if and when additional late-stage cancer immunotherapy agents successfully complete Phase 3 trials and gain approval, this may demonstrate to investors that cancer immunotherapy has graduated from the premature-technology stage. In that case, cancer immunotherapy specialty companies may find it easier to attract capital, and large pharmaceutical companies may wish to acquire some of these companies. Since Big Pharma already is involved in developing such immunotherapies as anti-PD-1 and anti PD-1L, and ipilimumab is already a marketed Big Pharma drug, that should not be much of a stretch.


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