Immunotherapy appears poised to usher in a breakthrough in healthcare, and by now, most in the medical community have taken notice. Earlier this year, we posted an overview of this new avenue in cancer research in which we mentioned the recent approvals of the first immunotherapy treatments; in the few short months since then, numerous strides have been made toward ingraining it as the new standard in cancer care. Meanwhile, high-profile figures in the medical and tech communities are driving fervent efforts in other areas of cancer research, particularly in diagnostics.
All this makes it clear that we are currently in an era of great progress toward finally getting a handle on one of the world’s most formidable diseases. Here’s an update on some of the most exciting things happening in cancer research today.
When we last checked in with immunotherapy development, it had just wrapped up an exciting year. 2014 and 2015 saw investments in immunotherapy in the vicinity of a billion dollars. Now, only a few months into this year, tech billionaire Sean Parker has announced a donation of $250 million to immunotherapy research, the most ever donated by one person to efforts to further immunotherapy1. The money will fund research conducted in conjunction between Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford Medicine, and many other institutional leaders in cancer research, all under the umbrella of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.
The $250 million is, for Parker, the culmination of a long record of regular donations to life science research. It comes just a few months after ClinicalTrials.gov hosted 450 open immunotherapy clinical trials, most of which are in Phase I or II2. And while the prevalence of Phase I immunotherapy trials signals fresh interest in developing the technology, herein lies a potential caveat for the immunotherapy revolution: Phase I cancer trials, partly because they collect data from actual cancer patients as opposed to healthy volunteers, often struggle with high dropout rates that lead to costly delays. This is a challenge that other Phase I trials, which recruit healthy volunteers, don’t have as much trouble with; ideally, recent progress in EDC technology will further mitigate obstacles like this.
Against the backdrop of all the investment and donations pouring in, efforts are underway to expand knowledge of immunotherapy to the public. Take, for example, the non-profit Cancer Research Institute, which is dedicated specifically to raising awareness of immunotherapy and is collaborating with Inspire, an information sharing platform for patients, to educate cancer patients on its potential benefits3. In the spread of awareness of immunotherapy from professional circles out to the layperson, the medical community is preparing for a new cancer treatment landscape in which the viability of immunotherapy is on par with that of chemotherapy.
In his comments on his immunotherapy donation, Parker touched upon the extent to which cancer outcomes hinge on the time of detection. Indeed, early detection has the potential to save the lives of a significant portion of those who develop cancer. This potential has driven the development of new, innovative approaches to diagnostics. This realm of innovation has attracted monumental investments from such significant tech figures as Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, who are funding the development of a new diagnostic test known as a “liquid biopsy.” In this test, doctors screen blood samples for cancer cells that drift into the bloodstream from tumor sites. Scientists have long been aware of this cell shedding, but have not, until recently, possessed the technology to fully exploit it4.
This technology did not develop out of the ether; numerous blood tests for cancer are, in fact, already on the market, but have only been used to monitor a patient’s disease for mutation and recurrence, not to diagnose. The liquid biopsies currently backed by Bezos and Gates, as well as numerous other investors and companies, are the first that would be used to screen patients before any symptoms arise. And while claims that this diagnostic technology signals a complete, top-down transformation of oncology may be premature (between the developers and the full implementation of liquid biopsies lie extensive future clinical trials), the success of the previous blood tests shows promise for these new endeavors.
In our earlier post, we noted our expectation that 2016 would be a big year for immunotherapy, and cited predictions that, by 2024, 60% of all cancer treatment would employ it. Given the developments in immunotherapy-related investments and public relations, it appears an ever-increasing body of entrepreneurs and professionals concur with these forecasts. This, coupled with the above-described advancements in diagnostics, are encouraging signs that we’re getting closer than ever to gaining the upper hand on cancer.