In late 2013, the journal Science named cancer immunotherapy the breakthrough in science for the year. As 2014 begins, however, is doesn’t appear that the cutting-edge cancer treatment approach is losing any momentum — particularly in the Texas biotech sphere. The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Pfizer recently announced that the two organizations will collaborate as a result of MD Anderson’s audacious Moon Shots program’s immunotherapy platform, all in an effort to fast-track the development of immune-based approaches to cancer treatment.
The new initiative is the first of its kind for MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program, which is an ambitious effort to dramatically reduce cancer deaths. The program gets it name from the idea of six “moon shots,” or bold goals that seek to target eight deadly cancers through the leveraging of three key platforms – infrastructure, technology or expertise – that support research efforts. Moon Shots will function as the connective glue between the three-year agreement between MD Anderson and Pfizer, which is designed to accelerate the research and development of immune-based treatments directly to cancer patients who could test and benefit from them now, and to more efficiently identify and exploit new combination therapies and biomarkers for guiding the treatment process.
The program — as well as MD Anderson’s own cancer immunotherapy achievements, have been spearheaded by the work of Dr. James Allison, who heads both departments. MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho, M.D., noted that, “The pioneering work of platform leader Jim Allison on why tumors evade the immune system has provided patients with a new class of medicine that can activate the immune system to attack cancer and, in some patients, bring about cure. Cancer immunotherapy is the most exciting and promising advance in the cancer field today.”
To wit, the cancer immunotherapy effort has flourished ever since Dr. Allison became involved with the project. Allison, who arrived only in November of 2012, made an immediate impact in enhancing and increasing the institution’s capabilities in expertise, technology, and techniques for furthering immunotherapy research. The crux of the research findings and drug development centers on a newly developed idea — immune checkpoint blockade — which is set to become a new, next-generation cancer treatment that unleashes immune T cells to aggressively combat cancer in the body. The most publicized drug from the new findings, ipilimumab (Yervoy), represents the first-ever cancer treatment approved for late-stage melanoma, with more than 20 percent of patients achieving complete responses for five years and longer, unheard of results for the disease.
Ipilimumab’s launch in 2011, however, was only the beginning in cancer immunotherapy’s meteoric rise toward being a true science breakthrough for cancer treatment. Along the way, new immune checkpoints and drugs have already been developed and are currently headed toward testing in clinical trials. At MD Anderson alone, clinical trials of ipilimumab and other agents are being tested for treating not only melanoma, but also lymphoma, lung, breast, gastric and prostate cancers.
Increasingly, the field seeks to develop new methods to harness a patient’s own customized set of cancer-targeting T cells through gene transfer to further optimize treatment.
“The era of immune system therapies for cancer is really just beginning,” Allison said. “MD Anderson is a center of immunotherapy excellence now that will grow, improve and significantly contribute to development of more effective drugs for cancer patients.”
For their part, Pfizer sees great promise in cancer immunotherapy that could someday restock their own current cancer treatment options. Since Pfizer has a proven platform for taking drug development of cancer drugs to successful commercialized conclusions, the company will seek to contribute its own platform for doing the same with MD Anderson’s preliminary work. “Pfizer’s strong experience in immunology and cancer therapeutics is an outstanding match for the talent and capabilities available through MD Anderson’s immunotherapy platform,” Dr. Allison noted. “Pfizer’s Rinat unit is a leader in antibody drug development and has a strong track record of scientific innovation, making it an excellent partner for our first alliance.”
Jaume Pons, Ph.D., Chief Scientific Officer of Pfizer’s Rinat biotech unit, added that, “This collaboration offers a unique opportunity to work directly with recognized pioneers in the rapidly advancing field of cancer immunotherapy. We look forward to partnering with the researchers and clinicians in the Moon Shots Program to potentially bring new treatment approaches to cancer patients.”
Pfizer is not likely to be the first and last major drug company that MD partners with to accelerate development of cancer immunotherapies. Dr. Allison stated that the Center has also invited leading companies in the field to establish similar collaborations.
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