PerspectiveIn the Journals

ASCO: Immunotherapy is ‘Cancer Advance of the Year’

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February 4, 2016

ASCO has named progress in immunotherapy for melanoma and other malignancies as the top cancer advance of the year, according to “Clinical Cancer Advances 2016: ASCO’s Annual Report on Progress Against Cancer.”

“The last few years have brought about incredibly exciting advances in our understanding of the molecular underpinnings of these diseases,” Julie M. Vose, MD, MBA, FASCO, president of ASCO and chief of the hematology and oncology division at University of Nebraska Medical Center, said during a press conference held on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on World Cancer Day. “In the era of precision medicine and molecular medicine, we can select treatment based on the genomic profiling of each patient and each tumor. Cancer immunotherapy uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer, which is something that those of us in cancer research have been dreaming about for years, and which has finally come to fruition.”

Julie M. Vose

Julie M. Vose, MD, MBA, FASCO

Within the report — published in Journal of Clinical Oncology — researchers highlighted the improvements that have been made with immunotherapy across cancer types.

For example, PD-1/PD-L1 checkpoint inhibitors such as pembrolizumab (Keytruda, Merck) and nivolumab (Opdivo, Bristol-Myers Squibb) have significantly extended OS among patients with melanoma. Further, PD-1/PD-L1 inhibitors have been approved to treat lung and kidney cancers.

A combination of nivolumab and ipilimumab (Yervoy, Bristol-Myers Squibb) — a CTLA-4 inhibitor — also has been approved for the treatment of advanced melanoma.

Early clinical findings show encouraging uses for immunotherapies in additional cancer types.

These include bladder cancer, liver cancer, and head and neck cancers.

T-cell therapies and cancer vaccines are other forms of immunotherapy that have demonstrated early signs of efficacy in blood and brain cancers.

“Researchers and regulators have moved immunotherapy strategies from the bench to the bedside in just a few short years,” Jedd Wolchok, MD, PhD, chief of melanoma and immunotherapy service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, as well as a HemOnc Today Editorial Board member, said during the press conference. “Those of us in the field are particularly proud, but we recognize that this advance has been a long time coming. Due to many years of dedicated research aimed at understanding what regulates the immune system, we have been able to develop therapies that use the immune system as a target for effective cancer treatment.”

Jedd Wolchok

Jedd Wolchok, MD, PhD

More than one-third of these breakthroughs in immunotherapy can be attributed to federal funding to support cancer research, according to the report.

Thus, sustained federal support is vital to continue this trend in progress, experts said.

“I am particularly pleased to be making this announcement on Capitol Hill, because federal funding has made such a big difference for our research and our patients,” Vose said. “These exciting advances would not have been possible without such efforts.” – by Cameron Kelsall

Disclosure: Vose reports a leadership role with ASCO. Wolchok reports that he is a member of ASCO’s board of directors.

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PERSPECTIVE
Jeffrey S. Weber, MD, PhD

Jeffrey S. Weber, MD, PhD

I applaud ASCO for naming immunotherapy its “Cancer Advance of the Year.” Given the robust activity in the immuno-oncology field — the growing list of publications and the number of tumors that are now susceptible to treatment with immunotherapies — it seems like the clear-cut, obvious choice. For those of us who have been in the immuno-oncology world for many years, it is gratifying that these treatments have momentum and a growing following, and we can say that immunotherapy now has all the hallmarks of an established field.

We are seeing a large number of immunotherapy trials, a significant amount of money being spent on these therapies, and many talented and smart doctors who now view immuno-oncology as a desirable career path. Resources were limited in the past, but now we have many different modalities that can be explored, including cell therapy, checkpoint inhibitors, agonistic molecules and bispecific T-cell enhancers that are exhibiting efficacy.

This is only the beginning, and as Frank Sinatra once said, the best is yet to come.


Jeffrey S. Weber, MD, PhD
NYU Langone Medical Center

Disclosure: Weber reports consultant roles with AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Genentech and Merck.