Four decades ago, the overall chance of someone surviving cancer was about 50-50— not exactly a promising outlook.
Today, those numbers have dramatically increased as new drugs and cancer-fighting biotechnologies make their way from labs into hospitals around the world.
“It’s an extraordinary time,” said Robert Hershberg, a longtime scientist and biotech executive who is now an executive vice president and head of business development at Celgene.
Celgene’s expertise is in treatments for blood cancers, and in January it spent $9 billion to acquire Seattle-based Juno Therapeutics, which is developing cutting-edge immunotherapies to treat cancer.
Speaking at the Seattle Cancer Summit at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Hershberg emphasized the sheer volume of promising cancer treatments coming down the pipeline and how the surge in biological science has helped fuel new and better treatments for patients.
“For those of us who have been in cancer research for the past couple decades, the onslaught I don’t think has ever been more intense,” he said.
It’s a sentiment that rings true throughout the biotech world. Journalist Luke Timmerman, who organized the Summit as part of his Climb to Fight Cancer campaign to raise funds for the Hutch, highlighted the same breakthrough science in his announcement of the project.
“The science is at a moment of tremendous possibility. We can’t go halfway now. By combining two of my passions, I hope to raise significant money and awareness for a world-class institution … and to support science itself,” Timmerman wrote on his news site, Timmerman Report.
At the event, Timmerman said his campaign, which will culminate when he summits Mount Everest later this spring, has raised $321,000 so far. The funds will go toward science research at the Hutch.
An explosion of cancer treatments in the past decades has reshaped the cancer landscape. First, small-molecule and chemotherapy drugs offered hope for swaths of cancer patients, and today, biologics like proteins, antibodies and even immune cells are giving rise to new specialized treatments for certain cancers.
Now, Hershberg said, companies are spending the bulk of their time triaging new treatments and focusing only on the most promising. “The average quality is getting so much better that it’s getting harder and harder,” he said.
“When you look at the data that’s been generated with BCMA and CD19,” two targets for CAR T immunotherapies, “it’s hard not to just shake your head and think, ‘we’re in a different era,’ in terms of the clinical data that we’re finally seeing,” Hershberg said.
Juno Therapeutics is one of the companies making CAR T immunotherapies that target CD19. The process involves genetically engineering a patient’s T cells, the cells that fight bugs like the common cold, so that they find and destroy cancer cells that display the CD19 marker.
The focus on specific biomarkers, like CD19, means cancer treatments can be targeted to specific sub-groups. Some drugs might work best on a certain kind of breast cancer or a certain mutation common in lung cancer.
James Sabry, senior vice president of partnering at Genentech, said the focus on biomarkers and tailoring a patient population carefully should be something the industry embraces.
“It should be standard routine now, it should be part of the infrastructure of oncology clinical development,” he said. It’s a must for bitoechs that want their products to succeed, and even more important to creating the best outcomes for patients, he said.