Major Advance In Cancer Therapy

Immune checkpoint inhibitors such as Keytruda and Opdivo work by unleashing the immune system’s T cells to attack tumor cells. Their introduction a decade ago marked a major advance in cancer therapy, but only 10% to 30% of treated patients experience long-term improvement. In a paper published online today in The Journal of Clinical Investigation (JCI), scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine describe findings that could bolster the effectiveness of immune-checkpoint therapyRather than rally T cells against cancer, the Einstein research team used different human immune cells known as natural killer (NK) cells—with dramatic results.

“We believe the novel immunotherapy we’ve developed has great potential to move into clinical trials involving various types of cancer,” said study leader Xingxing Zang, M.Med., Ph.D., Professor of microbiology  at Einstein and a member of the Cancer Therapeutics Program of the Montefiore Einstein Cancer Center.

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Personalized Skin Cancer Vaccine

Two major pharmaceutical companies are testing a personalized vaccine that might prevent the recurrence of a specific type of skin cancer. Moderna, one of the companies behind the COVID-19 vaccine, and Merck, an enterprise focused largely on oncology and preventative medicines, are teaming up to see if they can reduce the public’s risk of re-developing the deadliest form of skin cancer: melanoma.

The vaccine essentially combines two medical technologies: the mRNA vaccine and Merck’s Keytruda. As with the COVID-19 vaccine, mRNA shots don’t require an actual virus. Instead, they use a disease’s genetic code to “teach” the immune system to recognize and fight that particular illness. This makes it relatively easy and inexpensive for scientists to develop mRNA vaccines and edit them if a new form of the disease emerges. Keytruda, meanwhile, is a prescription medication that helps prevent melanoma from coming back after known cancer cells have been surgically removed.

Moderna and Merck are testing the feasibility of not only creating a two-in-one drug with both technologies but also customizing individual vaccines to suit their respective patients. Each vaccine is engineered to activate the patient’s immune system, which in turn deploys T cells (a type of white blood cell known to fight cancer) that go after the specific mutations of a patient’s tumor. Keytruda assists this effort by barring certain cell proteins from getting in the way of T cells’ intervention.

The experimental drug is currently in its second clinical trial out of three. The trial involves 157 participants with high-risk melanoma who just successfully underwent surgical removal. Some of the participants were given the personalized vaccine, while others were given Keytruda alone. Moderna and Merck will observe whether the participants’ melanoma returns over the span of approximately one year, with primary data expected at the end of this year.

If a vaccine preventing the recurrence of melanoma does in fact become commercially available, it could prevent more than 7,000 deaths per year in the US alone.


AI-designed Antibody Enters Clinical Trials

The Israeli company Biolojic Design will conduct a trial for cancer patients in Australia with a new type of drugAulos Biosciences is now recruiting cancer patients to try it’s world’s first antibody drug designed by a computer. The computationally designed antibody, known as AU-007, was planned by the artificial intelligence platform of Israeli biotech company Biolojic Design from Rehovot, in a way that would target a protein in the human body known as interleukin-2 (IL-2). The goal is for the IL-2 pathway to activate the body’s immune system and attack the tumors.

The clinical trial will be conducted on patients with final stage solid tumors and will last about a year – but the company hopes to present interim results during 2022. The trial has raised great hopes because if it is successful, it will pave the way for the development of a new type of drug using computational biology and “big data.” Aulos presented pre-clinical data from a study on 19 mice – and they all responded positively to the treatment. In the 17-day trial period of the study, the antibody led to the complete elimination of the tumors in 10 of the mice – and to a significant delay in the development of the tumors in the other nine mice.

Aulos was founded in Boston as a spin-off of Biolojic and venture capital firm Apple Tree Partners, which invested $40 million in the company to advance the antibody project and prove its clinical feasibility. Drugs based on antibodies are considered to be one of the greatest hopes for anti-cancer solutions. Among the best-known in the field are Keytruda, mostly used to treat melanomas and lung cancer; and Herceptin for breast cancer. But the antibodies given today to cancer patients are created by a method that also has disadvantages – most are produced by the immune system in mice, and then are replicated to enable mass production.