ASCO names immunotherapy as cancer advance of the year

With the start of another year, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has announced the cancer advance of the year as the developments seen in immunotherapies.

Worldwide, there will be an estimated 22.2 million new cancer diagnoses by 2030, with a disproportionate number of cancer deaths in Central and Southeast Asia. [Stewart BW, Wild CP, World Cancer Report 2014] Despite the growing challenges to cancer care, breakthroughs in the development of immunotherapies demonstrate the continued efforts to improving patients’ lives.

“No recent cancer advance has been more transformative than immunotherapy. These new therapies are not only transforming patients’ lives, they are also opening intriguing avenues for further research,” said ASCO President Julie M. Vose. “Advances like these require bold ideas, dedication and investment in research. If we are to conquer cancer, we need to invest more as a nation to support a strong biomedical research enterprise.”

The call for immunotherapies as the advance of the year highlights the continued progresses with the immune checkpoint inhibitors ipilimumab, nivolumab and pembrolizumab. These drugs targeting CTLA-4 and the programmed death 1 (PD-1)/PD-ligand 1 (PD-L1) proteins involved in the regulation of cell apoptosis have shown efficacy in advanced melanoma, extending patient survival from months to years with manageable adverse effects.
The past year saw evidence of PD-1/PD-L1 blockade in particular as an effective strategy in lung cancer as well. (See MIMS Onocology, “Pembrolizumab improves survival in PD-L1-positive advanced NSCLC patients“) This has led to the US FDA approvals of Bristol-Myers Squibb’s nivolumab and Merck Sharp & Dohme’s pembrolizumab for the treatment of advanced non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) after failure of previous treatment.

Other immunotherapies in development include Roche’s atezolizumab, a PD-L1 inhibitor, which has received US FDA breakthrough designation for PD-L1-positive NSCLC and has shown additional success in a phase II study on advanced bladder cancer.

Ongoing studies looking at PD-1/PD-L1 inhibitors in kidney, liver, and head and neck cancers, and exciting evidence pointing to their potential in haematological malignancies (acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, diffuse large  B-cell lymphoma, Hodgkin’s lymphoma) and glioblastoma suggest that progress will continue to be seen in this area of research. Clinical trials evaluating combination strategies with immunotherapies are also underway.

In addition to the advances in immunotherapy, ASCO has highlighted the advances in precision medicine and cancer prevention for improving patient care and quality of life. As knowledge of tumour biology continues to grow, powerful new treatments that block specific molecules (eg, olaparib targeting PARP and palbociclib targeting cyclin-dependent kinases 4 and 6) or target genetic alterations (eg, KRAS-, EGFR- and ALK-targeted therapies) that fuel cancer growth are becoming standards of care for many cancers. These targeted approaches have also shown promise in some difficult-to-treat cancers of blood, ovaries, breast and kidneys.

Between October 2014 and October 2015, the US FDA approved 10 new cancer treatments, expanded the use of 12 previously approved cancer therapies and one device, and approved one new vaccine for the prevention of cervical and other cancers.

As Vose emphasized, a critical component in the successes in cancer care is the availability of resources. “If we are to conquer cancer, we need to invest more as a nation so that we can prepare for what lies ahead,” she wrote. “Cancer care is set to change more dramatically in the next 20 years than it did in the last 50 years, thanks in part to advances in health information technology and a deeper understanding of cancer’s molecular drivers. As biomedical discovery expands, we need to be able to answer difficult questions and pursue new research directions.”

These new research directions include exploring new ways to improve patient outcomes by combining different immunotherapies, combining immunotherapies with traditional treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery, and starting immunotherapy earlier in the course of disease. Researchers are also looking to identify biomarkers that can predict response to immunotherapy and guide treatment decisions.

“In the near future, cancer immunotherapy may become the fourth pillar of cancer treatment, along with chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy,” the report’s authors wrote.

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