On April 13, 2012, Informa’s Scrip Insights announced the publication of a new book-length report, Advances in the Discovery of Protein-Protein Interaction Modulators, by Allan B. Haberman, Ph.D.

Protein-protein interactions (PPIs) are of central importance in biochemical pathways, including pathways involved in disease processes. However, PPIs have been considered the prototypical “undruggable” or “challenging” targets. The discovery of small-molecule drugs that can serve as antagonists or agonists of PPIs, and which are capable of being successfully taken into human clinical trials, has been extremely difficult. Among the theoretical reasons for this is that contact surfaces involved in PPIs are usually large and flat, and lack the types of cavities present in the surfaces of proteins that bind to small-molecule ligands.

Nevertheless, over the last twenty years, researchers have developed a set of technologies and strategies that have enabled them, in a several cases, to discover developable small-molecule PPI modulators. One direct PPI agonist, the thrombopoietin mimetic eltrombopag (Ligand/GlaxoSmithKline’s Promacta/Revolade), has reached the market. The chemical structure of this compound is illustrated in the figure above. Several other small-molecule PPI modulators are in clinical trials. Despite this progress, the discovery and development of small-molecule PPI modulators has been one-at-a-time, slow and laborious.

The new strategic importance of protein-protein interactions as drug targets

Meanwhile, PPIs as potential drug targets have acquired a key strategic importance for the success of the pharmaceutical industry. Over at least the last decade, pharmaceutical R&D has failed to develop enough high-valued new drugs to make up for or exceed revenues from blockbusters that are losing patent protection. As we have discussed in previous publications and in articles on this blog, this low productivity is mainly due to pipeline attrition. There are several factors (ranging from target selection through drug design, preclinical studies, identification and use of biomarkers, and design of clinical trials) that can influence pipeline attrition.

However, increasing numbers of industry leaders and analysts identify target selection as the key factor that is limiting the productivity of pharmaceutical R&D. For example, I served as a workshop leader at Hanson Wade’s “World Drug Targets Summit”  last summer, which took that point of view. There are at least several such conferences throughout the year, which are organized at the request of industry leaders.

Industry experts who identify poor target selection as a major cause of pharma R&D’s productivity woes conclude that the main issue is that companies are running out of “druggable” targets that have not already been addressed by marketed drugs. As of 2011, only 2% of human proteins have been targeted with drugs. Most of the remaining disease-relevant proteins, including transcription factors and many other types of signaling proteins, work via interacting with other proteins in PPIs. Therefore, in order to reverse its R&D slump, the pharmaceutical industry needs to develop technologies and strategies to address PPIs and other hitherto “undruggable” targets.

Contents of the report

Our report discusses technologies and strategies that enable the discovery of drugs targeting PPIs, including both small-molecule and synthetic peptidic modulators. It includes case studies on the discovery of compounds that address specific target classes, with emphasis on agents that have reached human clinical studies. This includes addressing the issue of the need to produce PPI modulatory agents that have pharmacological properties that will enable them to be good clinical candidates.

The report also includes discussions of second-generation technologies for the discovery of small-molecule and peptidic PPI modulators, which have been developed by such companies as Forma, Ensemble, and Aileron, and by academic laboratories. The field of PPI modulator discovery has represented a “premature technology”, i.e., a field of biomedical science in which consistent practicable therapeutic applications are in the indefinite future, due to difficult technological hurdles. We have discussed premature technologies on earlier articles on this blog. The second-generation technologies are designed to overcome the hurdles and to thus enable a more accelerated and systematic approach to PPI drug discovery and development.

In part as the result of the development of these technologies, and of the increasing strategic importance of PPI modulator development, companies have been moving into the field. Examples include Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer, Novartis, and Roche. A key issue is to what extent the new technologies for PPI modulator R&D will enable this area to be commercially successful, and to meet the strategic needs of the industry for expanding the universe of targets for which drugs can be developed.

To see the report Advances in the Discovery of Protein-Protein Interaction Modulators, please click here.


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 click here. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.


Happy New Year! http://bit.ly/tKUKIR

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:

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.

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 click here. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.


Blood cells

Our November 25, 2011 article on this blog focused on Ralph Steinman, one of the three winners of The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2011. That article focused on dendritic cell-based vaccines for cancer, and the application of this area of science and technology to treating Dr. Steinman’s own pancreatic cancer. Dr. Steinman died on September 30, 2011 after a four-and-a-half year battle with his disease, and was awarded the Nobel Prize three days later. He is the only person to ever have been awarded a Nobel Prize posthumously.

Now comes a Nobel Prize Essay, in the December 9, 2011 issue of Cell, entitled “Bridging Innate and Adaptive Immunity”, written by William E. Paul (Laboratory of Immunology, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH”). It is immediately followed by an obituary for Ralph Steinman, written by Antonio Lanzavecchia and Federica Sallusto (Institute for Research in Biomedicine, Bellinzona, Switzerland).

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2011 was divided, one half awarded jointly to Drs. Bruce A. Beutler (Scripps Research Institute, LA Jolla, CA and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX) and Jules A. Hoffmann [National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS), Strasbourg, France] “for their discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity” and the other half to Dr. Ralph M. Steinman (Rockefeller University, New York, NY) “for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity”. So the focus of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is on the two arms of the immune response–innate and adaptive immunity, and the relationship between the two.

Innate and adaptive immunity in the early to mid-20th century

Dr. Paul’s essay is a historical exposition of how researchers came to understand the basis of the innate and the adaptive immune responses, and how they work together as a coherent system. Adaptive immunity focuses on the ability of a vertebrate organism to “learn” to respond to a specific new antigen, and to “recall” and respond to an antigen that it had been exposed to in the past. Innate immunity focuses on the ability of nearly all multicellular life forms, including plants, to respond rapidly to protect themselves against pathogens, using the inflammatory system.

The essay begins with the first ever Nobel Prize given for a discovery in immunology, in 1908. This was shared by two pioneers in the field–Paul Ehrlich and Ilya (or Élie) Metchnikoff. Ehrlich pioneered the study of what is now called adaptive immunity. His work in immunology focused on the ability of humans and animals to develop specific antibodies to toxins such as tetanus toxin and diphtheria toxin. Metchnikoff pioneered the study of what is now called innate immunity. His work resulted in the discovery of phagocytosis, the process by which certain white blood cells can ingest and destroy harmful microbes.

As outlined in Dr. Paul’s article, most of the attention of immunologists between the awarding of the 1908 Nobel Prize and the modern era was on adaptive immunity, focused on the clonal selection theory of immunity and on discoveries in the the cellular (e.g., T cells) and humoral (e.g., antibodies) arms of adaptive immunity. A key practical application of the study of adaptive immunity–from Ehrlich’s day to the present–has been the development of vaccines.

Adjuvants and Charles Janeway’s pattern recognition hypothesis

However, mid-20th century immunology had a “dirty little secret”. Immunization with a pure antigen produces either a very weak immune response, or immune tolerance. In order to obtain a strong immune response, it is necessary to co-inject an adjuvant along with the antigen. The creation of adjuvants–which is involved not only in experimental immunology, but in such practical applications as vaccines–has been something of a black art. Adjuvants used in vaccines include  oil emulsions (which are thought to serve as depots for an antigen) and aluminum hydroxide (which is thought to act as an irritant). The most famous adjuvant in experimental immunology is complete Freund’s adjuvant, a strong adjuvant that consists of killed Mycobacteria tuberculosis bacteria in a water-in-oil emulsion. (Complete Freund’s adjuvant is too toxic for use in humans.)

In 1989, the late Dr. Charles Janeway (Yale University, New Haven, CT) proposed a hypothesis to explain the need for adjuvants; this hypothesis was very fruitful in stimulating further research on the immune response. Dr. Janeway hypothesized that the immune system required both an antigen/receptor interaction (as in classic adaptive immunity) and a recognition of pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs). PAMPs would be recognized by “pattern-recognition receptors” (PRRs), which would be broadly expressed by immune and inflammatory cells. Recognition of PAMPs by cells carrying PRRs would result in an innate immune response, which would be interpreted by cells of the adaptive immune system, the lymphocytes, as “permission” to mount an adaptive response when they recognized a specific antigen. In vaccination, the function of an adjuvant would be to provide the needed PAMPs.

Drs. Hoffman and Beutler and innate immunity

Beginning in 1996, Jules Hoffmann and his colleagues elucidated the innate immune response pathway in the fruit fly Drosophila, which enables the fly to produce the antifungal peptide drosomycin, and thus to become resistant to fungal infection. This pathway is initiated by the cell surface receptor Toll, and is homologous to the interleukin 1 (IL-1)/NF-κB signaling pathway, which is a key pathway in vertebrate immune and inflammatory responses.

Dr. Janeway and his colleagues then followed up on this study, in order to identify the corresponding microbial sensors in humans. They first scanned a molecular biology database, and identified a transcript that encoded a human homologue of Drosophila Toll, which they named a “Toll-like receptor” (TLR). Since Dr. Janeway and his colleagues did not know the ligand for their TLR, they constructed a chimeric molecule in which the extracellular domain of CD4 was linked to the cytoplasmic domain of the TLR. They expressed this chimera in a human monocyte cell line. When the chimera was crosslinked with an anti-CD4 antibody, NF-κB was activated, resulting in the production of the proinflammatory cytokines IL-1, IL-6, and IL-8. This showed that humans had at least one Toll homolog (Dr. Janeway’s TLR turned out to be TLR4) and that it controlled a signaling pathway similar to those controlled by Drosophila Toll or human IL-1. The ligands for human TLRs remained unknown, as did whether TLRs were the microbial sensors/PRRs postulated by Dr. Janeway had postulated.

It was Bruce Beutler who first determined the nature of TLR recognition specificity. In the 1990s, he worked to identify the genetic defect that rendered some mice unresponsive to lipopolysaccharide (LPS), the major component of the outer membrane of Gram-negative bacteria, which acts as an endotoxin in humans and other mammals. He used two closely related mouse strains, one of which was responsive to LPS (the “wild type” strain), and the other that was unresponsive (the “mutant” strain). Upon stimulation with LPS, macrophages from the wild type mouse produced tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFα), while macrophages from mutant mice did not. Dr. Beutler used positional cloning to determine the gene that was mutant in the LPS unresponsive mice. In 1998, he and his colleagues reported that that gene was Tlr4, which codes for the very same TLR identified by Dr. Janeway and his colleagues a year earlier. Dr. Beutler’s study indicated that LPS was a direct or indirect ligand for TLR4. It also showed that one type of molecule that would fulfill the criteria for a “PAMP”, namely LPS, working via TLR4 as a “PRR”, could activate the NF-κB-IL-1 pathway.

Since the initial identification of TLR4 by Dr. Beutler and his colleagues, other researchers have identified numerous other TLRs, which are activated by a variety of bacterial and viral molecules. These include such types of molecules as single- and double-stranded RNAs, CpG oligodeoxynucleotides, bacterial flagellin, lipopeptides, and zymosan, all of which fit with Dr. Janeway’s PAMP hypothesis. Different TLRs occupy different subcelluar locations–some are on the cell surface, others in intracellular vesicles. In addition to TLRs, other types of molecules may also act as PRRs.

Dr. Steinman, dendritic cells, and the unification of innate and adaptive immunity

Now we come to the work of Ralph Steinman and his colleagues on the role of dendritic cells in adaptive immune responses, and their relationship to innate immunity.

Antibodies (whether free antibodies or antibodies on the surface of B cells) can recognize molecules on the surface of pathogens. T cell receptors, however, recognize small antigenic peptides carried by major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules on the surface of antigen-presenting cells (APCs). This recognition, together with the activity of other signaling molecules on APCs, results in the activation of the T cell.

The requirement for an APC in T-cell activation was first recognized in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that time, immunologists generally believed that macrophages and perhaps B cells were the major APCs. In 1973, Ralph Steinman and Zanvil Cohn identified mouse dendritic cells, which are rare cells in the spleen and lymph nodes that have a stellate morphology. In 1978, Dr. Steinman and his colleagues published evidence that dendritic cells had potent immunostimulatory activity, and were over 100 times as effective in immunostimulation as macrophages and B or T cells.

Researchers were initially skeptical about Dr. Steinman’s studies, largely based on the widely held view that the far more numerous macrophages were the major APCs. However, a series of studies by Dr. Steinman and his colleagues showed that dendritic cells are the key APCs for nearly all aspects of T cell activation, and that the potency of dendritic cells as APCs far exceeds that of macrophages and B cells.  Indeed, modern techniques that led to the deletion of dendritic cells result in a profound inability to mount adaptive immune responses.

Dendritic cells are found in perhaps every type of tissue, where they exist in an immature state. For example, the population of immature dendritic cells in the skin are known as Langerhans cells–these cells are illustrated in the figure at the top of our November 25, 2011 article. Immature dendritic cells in tissues act as sentinels of microbial infection, and function to capture antigens (e.g., antigens from pathogenic microbes, or from cells infected by viruses or bacteria). They also express TLRs.

When tissue dendritic cells are stimulated via their TLRs (e.g., by TLR4 binding to bacterial LPS), the dendritic cells change to a mature phenotype, which is specialized in antigen presentation. These mature dendritic cells migrate from the tissue into the draining lymph node. The stimulated dendritic cells in the lymphoid system upregulate class II MHC molecules and other cell surface molecules involved in antigen presentation, and they also produce cytokines involved in T cell activation. The dendritic cells thus activate T cells, and the antigens presented on their surface, as well as the pattern of cytokines they produce, determine the specificity and the type of activated T cells that will result from their actions.

Thus, the work of Dr. Steinman and his colleagues serves to integrate studies of innate and adaptive immunity, and to elucidate how these two branches of the immune system work together to enable humans and other vertebrates to mount immune responses against pathogens and other insults such as tumors.

Despite the major advances in the relationship between innate and adaptive immunity that have been made in recent years, their are still many unknowns. For example, there are minority types of T cells such as natural killer T (NKT) cells and gamma-delta (γδ) T cells, which are conventionally thought to be involved in bridging innate and adaptive immunity. However, their functions are not well understood. Moreover, there are also numerous subsets of dendritic cells, and the functions of these subsets is also not well understood. These cell types, and other unknowns in the relationship between innate and adaptive immunity might, for example, be involved in the pathogenesis of steroid-resistant asthma, the most serious type of asthma.

Implications for drug discovery and development

Our previous article on Ralph Steinman and dendritic cells emphasized the development of dendritic cell vaccines, especially those for cancer. However the broad area of the relationship between innate and adaptive immunity has been and is expected to be a major factor in discovery and development of many types of drugs, vaccines, and immunotherapies.

  • Numerous cytokine-based therapies (e.g., interferons, interleukins, and TNF-related therapeutics) have already been developed and marketed. Dr. Beutler himself was the co-discoverer of TNFα in 1985,  and now there are several types of TNF inhibitors on the market.
  • In the vaccine area, Dr. Steniman’s work may allow researchers to design more effective adjuvants, a key need in the design of novel anti-viral and anti-cancer vaccines.
  • Several companies are developing TLR modulators as drugs or vaccine adjuvants. These include TLR agonists and antagonists. For example, Pfizer is developing the oligonucleotide TLR9 agonist vaccine adjuvant CpG7909 (in Phase 3 trials with GlaxoSmithKline’s MAGE-A3 melanoma vaccine), and another oligonucleotide TLR9 agonist product agatolimod, in combination with trastuzumab (Genentech/Roche’s Herceptin) in treatment of breast cancer (Phase 2). [Pfizer’s TLR agonists were originally developed by Coley Pharmaceuticals (Cambridge, MA), which Pfizer acquired in 2008.] TLR antagonists in development include Eisai’s eritoran tetrasodium, a TLR4 antagonist in Phase 3 trials for the treatment of sepsis and septic shock.
  • Research on the role of various immune cell populations that are thought to link innate and adaptive immunity (e.g. Th17 cells, NKT cells, and γδ T cells) in steroid-resistant asthma may lead to the design of new medicines to treat this serious condition.

There are likely to be numerous other drug discovery and development applications of research on the relationship between innate and adaptive immunity that will emerge as work in this very complex area continues.

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 click here. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.


Dendritic cells in skin

Ralph M. Steinman, MD of the Rockefeller University (New York, NY) the discoverer of the dendritic cell and its central role in the immune system, died on September 30, 2011 at age 68 after a four-and-a-half year battle with pancreatic adenocarcinoma. On October 3, 2011, he was awarded half of the The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2011 “for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity”. (The other half of the Prize was shared between Bruce A. Beutler and Jules A. Hoffmann “for their discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity”.)

Previously, in 2007, Dr. Steinman had been awarded an Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for the discovery of dendritic cells.

Dendritic cells are the principal antigen-presenting cells (APCs) in the immune system. They process antigenic material (for example, from invading bacteria and viruses, and from cancer cells), and present antigens on their surfaces to other types of immune cells, especially T cells. This results in antigen-specific activation of the T cells. Dendritic cells thus serve as the principal link between the innate and the adaptive immune system.

Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously, but the Nobel Committee was not aware that Dr. Steinman had died when they made the award. So the award still stands. Dr. Steinman thus has the distinction of being the only person to be awarded a Nobel Prize posthumously. The Nobel Foundation said, after reviewing the case, “The decision to award the Nobel Prize to Ralph Steinman was made in good faith, based on the assumption that the Nobel Laureate was alive.”

Nature published a “News in Focus” article on Dr. Steinman in its 13 October 2011 issue, written by Lauren Gravitz, a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles, California. The article details the attempt by Dr. Steinman and his colleagues to use dendritic cell-based immunotherapy to treat Dr. Steinman’s own cancer.

Ms. Gravitz met Dr. Steinman during her two-year tenure as a science writer in the Rockefeller University communications department.  While she was there, Dr. Steinman educated her on the complex field of dendritic cell biology. It was also during her time at Rockefeller that Dr. Steinman was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer (in March 2007). Starting at the time of his diagnosis, Dr. Steinman and his colleagues began developing and using their experiential immunotherapies against that cancer. Thus Ms. Gravitz has been following this story from the beginning, and the October 2011 Nature article is the result.

An approved and marketed dendritic cell-based immunotherapy

Only one dendritic cell-based immunotherapy, Dendreon’s Sipuleucel-T (APC8015, Provenge) for treatment of advanced prostate cancer, has been approved by the FDA. The FDA approved it on April 29, 2010, and it is considered the first approved and marketed cancer vaccine. Sipuleucel-T was the first therapeutic cellular immunotherapy for cancer to demonstrate efficacy in Phase 3 clinical trials; this led to the FDA approval. However, Sipuleucel-T only extended mean survival by four months as compared to placebo in Phase 3 clinical trials. And the treatment is expensive, costing a total of $93,000 for the full treatment of three infusions.

Since Sipuleucel-T must be prepared specifically for each patient, using the patients own dendritic cells, a discussion of this product is relevant to the case of Dr. Steinman’s experimental treatment, which also involved autologous dendritic cells.

To prepare Sipuleucel-T, a patient’s autologous dendritic cells are purified from his or her blood. The cells are then sent to a Dendreon site, where they are incubated with a fusion protein, consisting of two moieties–the antigen prostatic acid phosphatase (PAP), which is present in 95% of prostate cancer cells, and a granulocyte-macrophage colony stimulating factor (GM-CSF) moiety, which is an immune cell activator. The resulting product, APC8015 or Sipuleucel-T, is returned to the infusion center and infused into the patient. The goal is to stimulate an immune response to tumor cells carrying the PAP antigen.

Although Sipuleucel-T is the the first therapeutic cellular immunotherapy for cancer to demonstrate efficacy in Phase 3 clinical trials in terms of overall survival, neither it, nor other cancer vaccines in clinical trials, gives complete responses. In our April 27, 2011 blog post, we discussed another therapeutic cellular immunotherapy for cancer, known as adoptive immunotherapy, which does give some complete responses in metastatic melanoma. However, this therapy is experimental and difficult to standardize, and has thus attracted no commercial interest. It is not approved by the FDA, and will not be covered by third-party payers. Thus the emphasis on dendritic cell vaccines.

Using dendritic cells to stimulate immune responses to Dr. Steinman’s pancreatic cancer

There are no approved cancer vaccines for pancreatic adenocarcinoma, which has a poor prognosis (survival measured in weeks or a few months in advanced cases). The disease is generally treated with the cytotoxic drug gemcitabine (Lilly’s Gemzar). However, this treatment appears to be mainly palliative in patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, giving an improved quality of life and a 5-week improvement in median survival. Most patients soon develop resistance to treatment with this agent. Thus, when Dr. Steinman (with the help of his colleagues) attempted to treat his own pancreatic cancer, he was venturing into the unknown.

According to Ms. Gravitz’ article, Dr. Steinman had a meeting with two immunotherapy researchers who had formerly been members of his lab–Michel Nussenzweig of Rockefeller and Ira Mellman of Genentech, shortly after he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The three planned a strategy to design potential therapies for Dr. Steinman’s cancer.  Dr. Nussenzweig would implant some of the tumor as xenografts in mice so that there would be enough material to work with. Dr. Mellman would start a cell line, so that drugs could be screened for activity in killing the cells. Other colleagues would look for mutations in tumor cell DNA that could be used to design drug treatments, and another would isolate surface peptides from the tumor cells so that they could be used as the basis of a vaccine. Meanwhile, Dr. Steinman would undergo conventional chemotherapy with gemcitabine  in combination with whatever experimental therapies that might be deemed to have potential to treat the cancer.

Dr. Steinman tried eight experimental therapies, one at a time. For each of these treatment, he and his colleagues submitted a single-patient, compassionate-use protocol to the FDA, and received approval from the agency. Among these treatments were three cancer vaccines. One of them was a form of BioSante’s GVAX (now Aduro’s GVAX, as of the February 2013 acquisition) . The product GVAX Pancreas for pancreatic cancer (which is now in clinical trials) is based on human pancreatic cell lines that have been engineered to secrete GM-CSF, and have then been lethally irradiated. In the case of Dr. Steinman’s treatment, cells from his own tumor were used instead of cell lines.

The other two cancer vaccines were dendritic cell-based immunotherapies, and used dendritic cells isolated from Dr. Steinman’s own blood. The first of these immunotherapies was developed by Argos Therapeutics (Durham, NC), of which Dr. Steinman was a cofounder. It involved transfecting Dr. Steinman’s dendritic cells with RNA derived from his own tumor. The resulting dendritic cells expressed tumor antigens on their surfaces, and were injected back into Dr. Steinman’s blood to potentiate the production of tumor antigen-specific T cells. The second immunotherapy, developed by researchers at the Baylor Institute for Immunology Research (Dallas, TX) involved loading Dr. Steinman’s dendritic cells with peptide antigens from the surface of his tumor. These were also injected back into Dr. Steinman’s blood, in order to potentiate a tumor-specific immune response.

Dr. Steinman also wanted to try combination therapies with ipilimumab. Dr. Steinman tried ipilimumab as a monotherapy, but never got the permissions needed to try the combination therapy. Ipilimumab is an immunomodulator that blocks cytotoxic T-lymphocyte-associated antigen 4 (CTLA4) (a cell surface protein that transmits an inhibitory signal to T cells) to potentate an antitumor T-cell response. The FDA refused permission for the combination therapy despite his belief, and that of other leading immunologists, that the cancer vaccines were likely to work better in combination with ipilimumab. Ipilimumab (Medarex/Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Yervoy) was approved by the FDA in March 2011, and clinical trials of combination therapies of ipilimumab and dendritic-cell vaccines are in early stages.

The course of Dr. Steinman’s disease

Patients with advanced pancreatic adenocarcinoma typically have a poor prognosis. The median survival for locally advanced and for metastatic pancreatic cancer (advanced pancreatic cancer represents over 80% of individuals diagnosed with the disease) is about 10 and 6 months respectively. For all stages of pancreatic cancer combined, the 1- and 5-year relative survival rates are 25% and 6%, respectively.

However, Dr. Steinman survived for four-and-a-half years!

Did any of the treatments that Dr. Steinman received extend his life? No one can know, since with a one-patient experimental treatment there are neither controls nor statistical data as in properly controlled clinical trials.

Dr. Steinman appeared to be much more responsive to gemcitabine than is usually the case. And he had a measurable antitumor immune response, since approximately 8% of his cytotoxic T cells targeted his cancer. Was this due to his natural immunity, or due to the dendritic cell immunotherapies and/or other treatments that he received? Did Dr. Steniman’s antitumor immune response make his cancer more susceptible to gemcitabine than is usually the case? There is no way to know.

The implications of Dr. Steinman’s one-patient experimental treatment

According to Lauren Gravitz’ article, despite these unanswerable questions, Dr. Steinman’s treatment helped move the cancer vaccine field forward. For example, it showed that the leaders in the cancer vaccine field can work together as a team to design and carry out therapies. It also showed that conventional chemotherapy can be given in combination with cancer vaccines. And it also bolstered Dr. Steinman’s passionate belief that it is vitally important to move beyond in vitro studies and animal models into human studies of dendritic cell vaccines, especially given the limitations of animal models.

With respect to animal models and dendritic cell vaccines:

  • Dendritic cell immunotherapies designed for use in humans cannot be directly tested in standard animal models. For example, species specificity issues made direct testing of Sipuleucel-T in rodents impossible. Therefore, in preclinical studies researchers constructed “rodent equivalents” of Sipuleucel-T. These consisted of rodent APCs loaded with fusion proteins composed of either rat PAP (rPAP) fused to rat GM-CSF (rPAP•rGM-CSF) or human PAP (hPAP) fused to murine GM-CSF (hPAP•mGM-CSF), and these surrogate versions of Sipuleucel-T were tested in rodents.
  • Autologous dendritic cell immunotherapies have proven to be “remarkably safe” in human studies. Therefore, it may not be necessary to test for safety in animal models.
  • Dendritic cell biology is complicated. For example, researchers are still attempting to identify human dendritic cell subsets that correspond to known mouse dendritic cell subsets, especially subsets that appear to be the most promising for vaccine design. Therefore, the results of studies carried out in mice may not be directly applicable to humans. Moreover, the use of rhesus macaques for translational studies of vaccines based on dendritic cell biology is expensive.

Should autologous dendritic cell immunotherapies/vaccines for cancer be tested directly in humans, without the use of animal models for preclinical studies? In the case of the treatment of Dr. Steinman, the FDA allowed this to happen. Authorities in the field and regulatory agencies need to continue to discuss this issue.

Meanwhile, as stated at the end of Ms. Gravitz’ article, Anna Karolina Palucka of Baylor, a researcher who had been involved in Dr. Steinman’s treatment, says that she and her colleagues at Baylor are developing an immunotherapy program against pancreatic cancer based on the data from Dr. Steinman’s one-person trial. And Baylor will honor Dr. Steinman by opening a Ralph Steinman Center for Cancer Vaccines. This will be one of many tributes to a pathbreaking physician/scientist.

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 click here. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.