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Not Just Science Fiction - How Technology Will Shape the Future of Cancer Treatments
AJ Agrawal,CEO and co-founder of Alumnify
Television shows like Star Trek once predicted a universe where devices could detect disease, and treatments could be delivered at the push of a button to reverse diseases once considered incurable.
We aren’t quite there yet, but innovation is changing the field of healthcare in remarkable ways. Futuristic technologies like genetic engineering are becoming more mature; advances are made every day in our understanding of causes and cures for some of our most devastating healthcare problems.
Teaching the Body to Fight the Enemy Within
In healthcare, entrepreneurship is time-sensitive: today’s innovation could save someone’s life tomorrow. And within healthcare, there may be no field where technology innovation has more of an impact than the treatment of cancer.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States; in 2016 it’s estimated that more than more than half a million Americans will lose their life to cancer. Cancer develops when DNA becomes damaged, causing out of control cell growth. Because cancer cells are not recognized as foreign, the body’s natural defense mechanisms do not kick in to inhibit their growth.
Traditional treatments sought to inhibit cancer’s growth by using radiation or chemotherapy to kill off cancer cells. Unfortunately, these treatments didn’t just damage the cancer cells, they also damaged surrounding healthy tissue, resulting in a host of side effects that further weakened patients.
Today, technology innovators seek to change how we treat cancer through therapies that alter immune responses at a cellular level, making them more effective at fighting cancer without involving non-cancerous cells. This therapy, called immunotherapy, “trains” the body to recognize cancer, strengthens its immune response and alters pathways that cancer cells use to spread around the body..
Not Too Risky for Startup Pharma
There is much at stake in the field of cancer treatment, yet fear of risk has hampered efforts to develop these new technologies until recently. Patients themselves are risk-averse, often rejecting promising clinical trials for a treatment regime with proven results.
Because of these challenges, big pharma companies limited their investments in development of advanced treatment options like immunotherapy unless there was a strong business case and low risk. Unfortunately, these therapies aren’t without risk; some treatments such as T-cell therapy can stimulate potentially deadly reactions when administered systemically. Immunotherapies can also be expensive to develop and administer.
But these challenges haven’t stopped smaller, more nimble healthcare technology innovators from developing more sophisticated, safer immunotherapy technologies to beat the disease. Their innovation is paying off: new research indicates that immunotherapy could produce “Significant clinical response in 70% of patients” with multiple myeloma.
Immunotherapy: Hope for Advanced Cancers
One of the most promising innovations within immunotherapy is the use of genetically modified interleukins, or proteins, that signal the immune system to produce an inflammatory response that can destroy cancer.
One San Diego-based biotechnology startup, OncoSecis developing an immunotherapy treatment based on this approach called ImmunoPulse. ImmunoPulse uses naturally occurring proteins, such as interleukin 12 (IL-12), to stimulate the immune system to recognize and attack cancerous cells.
Unlike systemically delivered immunotherapies that can produce serious side effects, ImmunoPulse IL-12 is proving to be generally well tolerated and safe across multiple treatment cycles in clinical trials. DNA-based IL-12 is administered directly into the tumor using an applicator that delivers quick electric pulses to increase the permeability of cell membranes. This produces a localized immune response and educates fighter immune cells to recognize and attack cancer throughout the body, without attacking healthy cells.
OncoSec is currently focused on meeting the needs of patients who currently do not respond to one class of breakthrough immunotherapies, called checkpoint inhibitors - specifically anti-PD-1 therapies. By combining ImmunoPulse IL-12 with anti-PD-1 therapies, the company believes it can increase the number of patients who respond to and can benefit from this type of treatment.
According to Punit Dhillon, President and CEO of OncoSec: “Now, our goal is to continue to move this combination approach forward in order to achieve more effective immunotherapy treatments without additional safety concerns for patients who may not have any other treatment options.”
Companies like OncoSec are using innovative science that once existed only in fiction to save lives. Within 10 years, researchers believe immunotherapies like these could be used to treat up to 60% of cancers worldwide. Though Star Trek-style medicine may still be a long way off, cancer patients stand to benefit in the very near future from healthcare innovators’ willingness to boldly go where no science has gone before.
Sentiment: Strong Buy
2016-06-25 / Health & Fitness
Sci-fi or silver bullet? How immunotherapy is revolutionizing cancer treatment
Like any promising treatment, immunotherapy needs more research, time and investment to achieve its full life-saving potential.
Could the kind of cancer treatment credited with saving former President Jimmy Carter soon work for everyone? News coverage of Carter's recovery and in-depth coverage by media giants like TIME Magazine and 60 Minutes could lead you to believe that immunotherapy will be the silver bullet that ends cancer for everyone. Like any promising treatment, immunotherapy needs more research, time and investment to achieve its full life-saving potential.
"New treatments that harness the body's immune system to fight disease are changing how we view cancer treatment," says Punit Dhillon, president and CEO of OncoSec Medical Incorporated, a company engaged in immunotherapy research. "And while immunotherapy has shown great promise in fighting cancer, cancers are unique to the individual and adaptable. Research has shown combination therapies may be even more effective in defeating cancer's ability to adapt and survive in the body."
How immunotherapy works
To understand how immunotherapy can work, it's important to know how cancer operates in the body. When cancer cells grow and spread, they develop the ability to evade the body's immune system. If the body does not recognize cancer cells as a threat, they may be safe from an immune system attack. Cancer cells also adapt and can become resistant to traditional cancer treatments over time. While traditional treatments may shrink or eliminate tumors, if any cancer cells remain after treatment, they could adapt and begin growing again.
Immunotherapy seeks to reverse this immune tolerance, to once again identify cancer cells as a threat and target them for elimination. A class of immunotherapies, called checkpoint inhibitors, have shown great promise by re-invigorating T-cells, which are the immune system's fighter cells, so they can again recognize and attack cancer cells. This approach worked for former President Carter's brain tumor treatment.
The benefits of immunotherapies are undeniable. Successful immunotherapy attacks only cancerous cells, leaving healthy tissue undamaged. Using the body's own defenses to fight cancer lacks some of the debilitating side effects associated with traditional treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation. Immunotherapy can also train the immune system to remember cancer cells. This "memory" could remain effective long after treatment ends.
Another aspect of the challenge
"While checkpoint inhibitors can be very effective, many cancer patients don't have enough of a critical type of cell - called tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) - for this type of therapy to be effective," Dhillon notes. "Researchers are finding that only the minority of patients, about 30 to 40 percent, respond when treated with just this type of therapy alone."
Scientists are looking to combine immunotherapies with other kinds of existing cancer treatments to realize the full potential immunotherapy has to offer.
OncoSec is currently developing a technology, ImmunoPulse, that aims to stimulate anti-tumor immune activity and drive essential TILs to the tumor area. The company is conducting research that shows this priming therapy will help increase patient response rates to checkpoint inhibitors by driving TILs. The aim is to develop a therapy that, when combined with other immunotherapies, will help the body's immune system operate even more effectively against cancer.
"To the public-at-large, immunotherapy is a relatively new concept that may seem like it borders on science fiction, but immuno-oncology researchers have made very real, positive progress," Dhillon says. "We've already learned we can leverage the body's own defenses to combat cancer. Now, our goal is to better understand how to make different therapies work better together so patients have safer and more effective treatment options."
Sentiment: Strong Buy