The coming patent cliff and the nation’s continuing economic problems have tightened many drugmakers’ R&D budgets. Cancer research has remained a priority, however, as GE Healthcare’s recent $1-billion investment in oncology demonstrates. Two recent studies show the importance of this research by offering glimmers of hope.
The National Institutes of Health recently administered cancer vaccine PANVAC to 26 women with breast or ovarian cancer. PANVAC, a recombinant poxviral vaccine, produces two proteins associated with tumor cells to stimulate the body’s immune system to attack the cancer. During the trial, the median time it took for the breast-cancer patients’ condition to progress was 2.5 months, and the patients’ median survival time was 13.7 months. One breast cancer patient was still alive 37 months later. Median survival for the 14 ovarian-cancer patients was 15 months, and one woman went 38 months before her disease progressed. Although the trial was small and did not include a control group, these results seem encouraging.
Researchers from Oxford University also have attempted to fight cancer with the immune system. A team led by Paul Fairchild, codirector of the Oxford Stem Cell Institute, used stem-cell technology to create new dendritic cells from a patient’s skin. The dendritic cells, which organize part of the body’s immune response, carried the marker Melan A so that they would trigger an attack on melanomas. In the study, the team’s dendritic cells activated immune cells that produce antibodies and those that kill other cells. Previous studies using other dendritic cells had stimulated only part of the immune system.
Both of these techniques are still in their early phases. It will be some time before the studies lead to therapies from which patients can benefit, but they add to our knowledge of cancer and underscore the importance of oncology research. I take encouragement from these early steps, which I hope will inspire other drugmakers to take up the challenge of battling cancer.