Rival biotech and pharma heavyweights are teaming up to accelerate testing of a hot new field of cancer treatment – including trying dozens of new drugs in various combinations.
The new National Immunotherapy Coalition brings together big names such as Amgen, Celgene, and Merck KGaA, among others.
The coalition will be led by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a biotech billionaire who runs a network of companies working on cancer treatments and personalized medicine.
He and other outside analysts said it wasn’t at all clear that the coalition would be able to break new ground in the treatment of cancer.
The initiative, dubbed “Cancer MoonShot 2020,” will focus on the hottest field of oncology – harnessing the immune system to fight malignancies.
The coalition does not include some of the biggest players in immunotherapy, such as Juno Therapeutics, Kite Pharma, and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
While the coalition’s stated objective is to encourage rival companies to work together to test new combinations of drugs, such cooperation is already taking place.
In part, that was because many of the drugs used to fight cancer were so toxic, and combining them was risky.
Companies “Have realized that that old parochialism, where you stick only with your own drug, isn’t good for them and it isn’t good for patients,” said Schreiber, the co-founder of a startup working on cancer immunotherapy.
“I’m interested to see what value it offers beyond publicity for them,” said Dr. John Heymach of MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Others say a coalition focused on immunotherapy can’t hurt.
When immunotherapy drugs work, they work phenomenally.
They work in only about 10 percent to 30 percent of patients, depending on the kind of cancer, biologist Ira Mellman, vice president of research oncology at Genentech, told a cancer immunotherapy meeting in New York last year.
One promising approach: a cancer vaccine, designed to incite the immune system to raise an army of T-cells to attack tumors.
That’s where another type of immunotherapy drug comes in Known as checkpoint blockades, they work by lifting that force field and letting the T-cells attack.
Last year, as Beau Biden was dying of cancer, Soon-Shiong met several times with Vice President Joe Biden, the New York Times has reported.
The two met again last fall, and Soon-Shiong presented the vice president with an outline of an ambitious plan to find a cure for cancer, starting with full genome sequencing of 100,000 cancer patients and a huge data mining effort to find the keys to personalizing treatment.
Biden has publicly called for the nation to fund a “Moonshot” to cure cancer.
He’s still gathering information on how best to do that; just last week, his staff met with top cancer researchers from across the country.
The Food and Drug Administration is not involved, either, and the National Cancer Institute will participate only to weigh in on clinical trial design.