Our New Year’s 2015 article: Notable researchers and breakthrough research of 2014

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Allan B. Haberman, Ph.D
Pre-1917 Russian Happy Christmas and Happy New Year card

Pre-1917 Russian Happy Christmas and Happy New Year card

As is their customary practice, both Nature and Science ran end-of-year specials. The Nature special (in their 18 December issue) is entitled “365 days: Nature’s 10. Ten people who mattered this year.” The Science special (in their 19 December issue) is entitled, as usual “2014 Breakthrough of the Year.” As is also usual, there is a section for “Runners Up” to the year’s “Breakthrough”.

From the point of view of a consulting group—and a blog—that focuses on effective drug discovery and development strategies, we were disappointed with both end-of-year specials. Most of the material in these articles was irrelevant to our concerns.

Science chose the Rosetta/Philae comet-chasing mission as the “Breakthrough of the Year”, and its “runners up” included several robotics and space-technology items, as well as new “letters” to the DNA “alphabet” that don’t code for anything.

Nature also focused on comet chasers, robot makers, and space technologists, as well as cosmologist and mathematicians, and a fundraising gimmick—“the ice-bucket challenge”. Moreover, Nature was much too restrictive in titling its article “Ten people who mattered”. Every human being matters!

Nevertheless, these two special sections do contain a few gems that are both relevant to effective drug discovery and development, and are worthy of highlighting as “notable researchers of 2014” and “breakthrough research of 2014”. We discuss these in the remainder of this article.

Suzanne Topalian, M.D.

Suzanne Topalian is one of the researchers profiled in “Nature’s 10”. She is a long-time cancer immunotherapy clinical researcher who began her career in 1985 in the laboratory of cancer immunotherapy pioneer Steven Rosenberg at the National Cancer Institute (Bethesda MD). In the early days of the field, when cancer immunotherapy was scientifically premature, there was a great deal of skepticism that these types of treatments would even work. However, both Dr. Rosenberg and Dr. Topalian persevered in their research.

In 2006, Dr. Topalian moved to Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD) to help launch clinical trials of Medarex/Bristol-Myers Squibb/Ono’s nivolumab, a PD-1 inhibitor. As noted in the Nature article, her work “led to a landmark publication in 2012 showing that nivolumab produced dramatic responses not only in some people with advanced melanoma but also in those with lung cancer [specifically, non–small-cell lung cancer, NSCLC].” We also discussed that publication on the Biopharmconsortium Blog, and in our recently published book-length Insight Pharma Report, Cancer Immunotherapy: immune checkpoint inhibitors, cancer vaccines, and adoptive T-cell therapies. Our report also includes discussions of Dr. Rosenberg’s more recent work in cellular immunotherapy.

As discussed in our report, nivolumab was approved in Japan as Ono’s Opdivo in July 2014 for treatment of unresectable melanoma, and a competitive PD-1 inhibitor, pembrolizumab (Merck’s Keytruda) was approved in the United States for advanced melanoma on September 5, 2014. More recently, on December 22, 2014, the FDA also approved nivolumab (BMS’ Opdivo) for advanced melanoma in the U.S. There are thus now two FDA-approved PD-1 inhibitors [in addition to the CTLA-4 inhibitor ipilimumab (BMS’ Yervoy)] available for treatment of advanced melanoma in the U.S.

Meanwhile, researchers continue to test both nivolumab and pembrolizumab for treatment of NSCLC and other cancers. And some analysts project that both of these agents are likely to be approved by the FDA for treatment of various populations of patients with NSCLC before the middle of 2015. Researchers are also testing combination therapies that include nivolumab or pembrolizumab in various cancers. And clinical trials of Genentech/Roche’s PD-L1 blocking agent MPDL3280A are also in progress.

Science’s 2013 Breakthrough of the Year was cancer immunotherapy, as we highlighted in our New Year’s 2014 blog article. Science could not make cancer immunotherapy the Breakthrough of the Year for 2014, too. Thus it chose to give physical scientists a turn in the limelight by highlighting the comet-chasing mission instead. Nevertheless, 2014 was the year in which cancer immunotherapy demonstrated its maturity by the regulatory approval of the two most advanced checkpoint inhibitor agents, pembrolizumab and nivolumab.

Implications for patients with terminal cancers

The clinically-promising results of cancer immunotherapy in a wide variety of cancers, coupled with the very large numbers of clinical trials in progress in this area, has also changed the situation for patients who have terminal cancers. Researchers who are conducting clinical trials of immunotherapies for these cancers are actively recruiting patients, of whom there are limited numbers at any one time. For example, there are now numerous clinical trials—mainly of immunotherapies—in pancreatic cancer, and most of these trials are recruiting patients. There are also active clinical trials of promising immunotherapies in the brain tumor glioblastoma. These are only two of many examples.

Recently, a 29-year-old woman with terminal glioblastoma ended her life using Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law. Prior to her suicide, she became an advocate for “terminally ill patients who want to end their own lives”. We, however, are advocating that patients with glioblastoma and other types of terminal cancer for which there are promising immunotherapies seek out clinical trials that are actively recruiting patients. There is the possibility that some of these patients will receive treatments that will result in regression of their tumors or long-term remissions. (See, for example, the case highlighted in our September 16, 2014 blog article. There are many other such cases.) And it is highly likely that patients who participate in these trials will help researchers to learn how to better treat cancers that are now considered “incurable” or “terminal”, and thus help patients who contract these diseases in the future. From our point of view, that is a lot better than taking one’s own life via assisted suicide, and/or becoming an euthanasia advocate.

Masayo Takahashi, M.D., Ph.D.

Another researcher profiled in “Nature’s 10” is Masayo Takahashi, an ophthalmologist at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan who has been carrying out pioneering human stem cell clinical studies. We also discussed Dr. Takahashi’s research in our March 14, 2013 article on this blog.

At the time of our article, Dr. Takahashi and her colleagues planned to submit an application to the Japanese health ministry for a clinical study of induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS)-derived cells, which would constitute the first human study of such cells. They planned to treat approximately six people with severe age-related macular degeneration (AMD). The researchers planned to take an upper arm skin sample the size of a peppercorn, and transform the cells from this sample into iPS cells by using specific proteins. They were then to add other factors to induce differentiation of the iPS cells into retinal cells. Then a small sheet of these retinal cells were to be placed under the damaged area of the retina, where they were expected to grow and repair the damaged retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). Although the researchers would like to demonstrate efficacy of this treatment, the main focus of the initial studies was to be on safety.

According to the “Nature’s 10” article, such an autologous iPS-derived implant was transplanted into the back of a the damaged retina of one patient in September 2014. This patient, a woman in her 70s, had already lost most of her vision, and the treatment is unlikely to restore it. However, Dr. Takahashi and her colleagues are determining whether the transplant is safe and prevents further retinal deterioration. So far, everything has gone smoothly, and the transplant appears to have retained its integrity. However, the researchers will not reveal whether the study has been a success until a year after the transplantation.

The “Nature’s 10” article discusses how this technology might be moved forward into clinical use if the initial study is successful. It also discusses how Dr. Takahashi has been carrying her research forward in the face of a major setback that has plagued stem cell research at the CDB in 2014, as the result of the withdrawal of two once highly-regarded papers and the suicide of one of their authors.

Generation of insulin-producing human pancreatic β cells from embryonic stem (ES) cells or iPS

Another stem cell-related item, which was covered in Science’s end-of-2014 “Runners Up” article, concerned the in vitro generation of human pancreatic β cells from embryonic stem (ES) cells or iPS. For over a decade, researchers have been attempting to accomplish this feat, in order to have access to autologous β cells to treat type 1 diabetes, in which an autoimmune attack destroys a patient’s own β cells. In vitro generated β cells might also be used to screen for drugs that can improve β cell function, survival, and/or proliferation in patients with type 2 diabetes.

As reported in the Science article, two research groups—one led by Douglas A. Melton, Ph.D. (Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Cambridge, MA), and the other by Alireza Rezania, Ph.D. at BetaLogics Venture, a division of Janssen Research & Development, LLC.–developed protocols to produce unlimited quantities of β cells, in the first case from IPS cells, and in the other from ES cells.

However, in order to use the β cells to treat type 1 diabetes patients, researchers need to develop means (for example, some type of encapsulation) to protect the cells from the autoimmune reaction that killed patients’ own natural β cells in the first place. For example, Dr. Melton is collaborating with the laboratory of Daniel Anderson, Ph.D. (MIT Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research). Dr. Anderson and his colleagues have developed a chemically modified alginate that can be used to coat and protects clusters of β cells, thus forming artificial islets. Dr. Melton estimates that such implants would be about the size of a credit card.

The 2014 Boston biotech IPO boom

Meanwhile, the Boston area biotechnology community has seen a boom in young companies holding their initial public offerings (IPOs). 17 such companies were listed in a December 24 article in the Boston Business Journal. Among these companies are three that have been covered in the Biopharmconsortium Blog—Zafgen, Dicerna, and Sage Therapeutics.

We hope that 2015 will see at least the level of key discoveries, drug approvals, and financings seen in 2014.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

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