INSIGHT-Pfizer, Bristol revive cancer drugs that rev up immune system
By Bill Berkrot
NEW YORK Aug 7 (Reuters) - Some of the most heralded new cancer drugs fight the disease by removing brakes on the immune system. Now a few leading drugmakers are paying attention to a second, opposing force: medicines that accelerate the immune system's attack.
Pfizer Inc, which is lagging rivals in the lucrative field of cancer immunotherapies, has been the first to report early data of an "accelerator" treatment that targets a protein called 4-1BB. It has at least five other Phase I studies underway or in planning stages in solid tumor cancers and lymphomas, which are blood cancers.
Bristol-Myers Squibb Co is hot on Pfizer's heels with a handful of early-stage trials of its own 4-1BB antibody. Others, including Johnson & Johnson and AbbVie Inc are doing early testing of their antibodies prior to starting human trials, company executives and researchers told Reuters.
"What they have shown are some pretty phenomenal responses in patients ... where you would not expect the drug to work very well" because the patients had stopped responding to any available treatments, said Dr. Holbrook Kohrt, a researcher from Stanford University Cancer Institute, referring to results from a small trial of Pfizer's treatment in patients whose lymphoma had progressed after they received several other therapies.
4-1BB, also known as CD137, and its connection to the immune system was identified more than 20 years ago by scientists at the University of California San Diego. The approach was largely abandoned in 2008 after early clinical trials of a Bristol therapy showed dangerous signs of liver damage.
Scientists eventually realized that significantly lower doses of a 4-1BB antibody, given at the right time, could achieve the desired anti-cancer effect without the toxicity.
They now believe immune system accelerator therapies could work for many types of cancers, bolstering an arsenal of new medications that are changing the field of oncology.
Bristol and Merck & Co have debuted potent drugs that work by blocking a protein known as PD-1, which tumors use to evade detection by the immune system. Doctors are seeing some patients live for years with diseases like advanced melanoma, which had nearly always meant death within months. Continued...