Apr 18, 2014 9:49 PM GMT
An old idea for treating cancer is yielding impressive results on cancer patients—and lots of attention from drug companies.
“This is not a garden-variety cancer treatment development program,” says Roger Perlmutter, an immunologist who heads R&D at Merck. “This looks special at this stage,” he says.
Merck’s compound is an antibody, a Y-shaped biological molecule that grabs onto a specific protein. The target protein normally prevents immune cells from attacking cancer. By blocking the activity of that protein, the antibody frees the immune cell to fight the disease. Roche, GlaxoSmithKline, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and others are also developing antibodies to release such brakes on the immune system.
New details of how these compounds work and for whom will be presented by many groups involved in the new push for cancer immunotherapy at this year’s American Association for Cancer Research meeting, in San Diego. The conference, which started on Saturday, is the largest meeting of oncologists and oncology researchers in the world. Although researchers express excitement about the potential for immune-modulating medicines to combat cancer—some experts even use the word “cure”—many caution that it will take time to fully understand how well the treatments are working.