Science magazine—America’s leading scientific journal—has deemed cancer immunotherapy the 2013 “Breakthrough of the Year,” beating out nine other contenders. The editors of Science called 2013 a “turning point in cancer,” as results from several recent clinical trials have documented the power of immunotherapies to treat cancer, including very advanced and metastatic disease.
The editors highlighted in particular the work of James Allison, director of CRI’s Scientific Advisory Council. Allison is the person responsible for developing the checkpoint blockade approach to cancer immunotherapy: antibodies are used to target specific molecules on immune cells, which empowers them to find and attack cancer cells. The first drug of this kind was the anti-CTLA-4 antibody called ipilimumab, which is manufactured by Bristol-Myers Squibb and which the FDA approved in 2011. Ipilimumab is now first-line treatment for patients with metastatic melanoma—a type of cancer largely resistant to standard chemotherapy.
Since ipilimumab arrived on the scene, a number of other molecules have caught researchers’ attention. Most famous is an antibody that targets a molecule on immune cells called PD-1. This anti-PD-1 antibody works in a complementary fashion to ipilimumab and can be combined with it for more powerful results, as has been recently shown by a clinical trial conducted by CRI Scientific Advisory Council associate director Jedd Wolchok. If clinical trials of anti-PD-1 continue to show promising results, cancer patients may soon have access to another powerful immunotherapy for the treatment of numerous cancers, including melanoma, non-small cell lung cancer, and other solid tumors.
In addition to checkpoint blockade antibodies, the editors also pointed to recent advances in adoptive cell therapy—removing a patient’s immune cells, engineering them in the lab, and then re-infusing them back into the patient to fight cancer. Carl June of the University of Pennsylvania and Michel Sadelain of Memorial Sloan-Kettering—both winners of the 2012 Coley Award—are leading efforts to develop this approach, which has already shown remarkable success in patients with leukemia.
In choosing cancer immunotherapy as this year’s breakthrough, the award committee was calling attention to the potential of the approach to radically change the treatment of cancer in the coming years. Highlighting the eye-catching results of several patients—including those of 6-year-old Emily Whitehead—whose lives have been spared by experimental immunotherapies, the editors cited an emerging belief among oncologists that “a corner has been turned and we won't be going back.”
The Science breakthrough comes on the heels of several other accolades recently heaped upon CRI Scientific Advisory Council director James Allison. Allison was one of six recipients of this year’s “Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences,” awarded by a group of philanthropists and entrepreneurs including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Allison was also chosen to receive the 2013 “Innovations Award in Bioscience,” bestowed by The Economist magazine.
CRI CEO and director of scientific affairs Jill O’Donnell-Tormey says she is gratified to see the field of cancer immunology finally receiving mainstream acceptance. “For 60 years, our scientists have worked relentlessly to unlock the secrets of the immune system, with the goal of understanding how to use its power against cancer,” she said. “We now have new treatments that are producing real successes. And this is just the beginning. “