The National Cancer Institute announced recently that it will fund an initiative to encourage research in immunotherapy. It's a promising approach to treating cancer, one that's been around for a little while, and includes treatments like my old pal Rituxan, as well as the very successful drug Herceptin, used most often to treat breast cancer. Both are examples of monoclonal antibodies, which work in several ways, including stimulating the immune system.
The NCI initiative will involve 27 cancer research centers across the country (including, in my own backyard, Yale), and will focus on developing and running clinical trials. In addition to studying the overall effectiveness of the selected immunotherapies, the study will also look at other things like biomarkers, clues to determine if certain patients have more success because of the genetic makeup of their cancer. (While patients might outwardly have the same kind of cancer, they may not have come to it the same way. Biomarkers let researchers know which path the cancer took to get to where it is, and thus, potentially, which treatment to use to get rid of it. This is what personalized medicine is all about.)
The first NCI trials will focus on two particular immunotherapies. One of the two chosen is called CP-870, 893. Like Rituxan, which targets cells that have the protein CD20 on their surface, this one targets the protein CD40, which is present on some B-cell malignancies (that is, some types of lymphoma) as well as some solid tumors. The other is called Inter-leukin 15, which mimics a naturally-occurring substance that is secreted by cells when they are attacking a virus. It is hoped that this copy of the natural substance will do the same job, stimulating T cells -- immune cells that attack invaders -- as well as work to cause bad cells to kill themselves in lots of neat ways.
Very encouraging to see immunotherapy get some love. Seems like a very promising approach overall, as shown by the success of Rituxan and Herceptin.
I know I get very excited about any new approach that's being touted in the news. I have no idea what the future holds, and whether, say, immunotherpay holds the key to wiping out cancer, or if nanotechnology will be it. Maybe it will be some combination. But I am, I will freely admit, a Cancer Whore: I will go with any potential treatments, any place, any time, as long as they can pay the price -- a successful phase III clinical trial.