ACGT Advisor Makes Immunotherapy More Accessible

  • | Feb 02 2015 |

At Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy (ACGT), our vision is to transform cancer from a harrowing disease into a manageable diagnosis. We believe — along with the brilliant scientists who provide research, treatment and scientific counsel — that this can be unlocked through immunotherapy and cell and gene therapies. And so we are overjoyed that recently, immunotherapy has made another major stride forward in revolutionizing how we treat cancer.

That leap forward comes in the form of a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. The FDA – which is tasked with taking a close look at new cancer treatment methods and drugs — recently granted accelerated approval to Opdivo (nivolumab), an immunotherapy drug for melanoma patients. Opdivo holds a particular importance: It will be used to treat melanoma patients who are not responding to other drugs, and who are not candidates for surgery. The heartening news came out on December 22, 2014.

Paramount to Opdivo’s development and success is Dr. Lieping Chen, a brilliant oncologist who serves on the ACGT Scientific Advisory Council. Dr. Chen helps ACGT to bestow grants upon the world’s most talented and visionary oncologists — oncologists who have, in turn, developed breakthrough drugs, research and clinical trials, and saved lives. Dr. Chen is also the Director of Yale Cancer Center’s Immunology Program, and a Professor in Cancer Research and of Immunobiology. Dr. Chen’s work on Opdivo was carried out alongside scientists Arlene Sharpe and Gordon Freeman. Opdivo is made by biopharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Opdivo functions in that same, amazing way that other immunotherapy drugs do: It harnesses the patient’s immune system, allowing the body to fight off the invading cancer cells. This approach is often less harrowing than the other options, like chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Opdivo’s ability to target melanoma specifically is also tremendous news. Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the United States, behind breast cancer, colon and rectal cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer. Further, estimates from the National Cancer Institute posit that over 75,000 Americans were diagnosed with melanoma in 2014 — and that nearly 10,000 Americans perished from the cancer.

For us at ACGT — and all others following the saga of Opdivo — it is incredibly heartening to see the tremendous power of immunotherapy translate from the laboratory into the drug phase. It represents the future of how we understand cancer, and cancer’s transformation into a disease that we can manage while still maintain quality of life.

This fantastic Opdivo development comes on the heels of another great announcement: The FDA’s accelerated approval of Keytruda (pembrolizumab), the Merck drug that also employs immunotherapy to battle cancer, specifically melanoma. Keytruda’s potential and positive implications have been reported on by The Wall Street JournalBarron’s, and FiercePharmaM. Indeed, media reports note Merck soon intends to expand Keytruda’s abilities to treat other cancer diagnoses, as well.

These two drugs receiving the green light from the FDA designated 2014 as a watershed year for immunotherapy. The news also prepares us for an even bigger year: 2015 promises to hold so much spectacular news for the future of battling cancer. At ACGT, we look into the future eagerly and with a great deal of optimism. So many powerful factions — from scientists and donors to biotech and pharmaceutical companies — are uniting to eradicate cancer as we know it.

We also wish to stress the importance individual charity can have. So many breakthroughs, like Dr. Chen’s and those of Opdivo and Keytruda, and financed by generous philanthropists and private contributors. These visionaries are making up for the dearth of financing from public entities. We invite you to learn more about donating, and how your gift can play a paramount role in stamping out cancer.