On March 19-20 in California, the third Fortune Brainstorm HEALTH conference brought together renowned leaders from healthcare and related industries to provide insight into today’s most pressing challenges as well as how we might solve them. Arianna Huffington, along with David Agus, M.D., of the University of Southern California and Fortune’s Clifton Leaf, co-chaired the event, which covered an impressively diverse scope of topics and perspectives.
Among the notable participants were Mark Bertolini, the chairman and chief executive officer of Aetna, who tapped into his experience leading one of the nation’s largest health insurers to discuss the future of healthcare in America, and even Kevin Durant, the 2017 NBA Finals MVP from the Golden State Warriors, who, along with his business partner Rich Kleiman discussed the connection between physical well-being and performance. Other sessions focused on everything from mental health to “Why Don’t We Talk About Death?” to considerations regarding patient privacy and artificial intelligence in our increasingly digitized world.
Cancer was another major challenge addressed at the event, and in a panel entitled 'Weaponizing Your Own Body,' Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, Ph.D., CRI’s chief executive officer and director of scientific affairs, spoke about how the advances in immunotherapy—which empowers patients’ immune systems—has revolutionized the way we treat the disease.
While cancer immunotherapy has progressed substantially in the past few years, especially in the clinic, there’s still a pressing need to expand its benefits to more patients. How to accomplish this was the focus of the panel, which also included Anna Barker, Ph.D., the director of the National Biomarker Development Alliance and a professor at Arizona State University; Laurie Glimcher, M.D., the president and CEO of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who also serves as a member of the CRI Scientific Advisory Council; and Thomas Lynch, Jr., M.D., the chief scientific officer and vice president of research and development at Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Panelists stressed the importance of basic research, which provides the foundation upon which truly transformative treatments are built. This is especially true in immunotherapy, and as more discoveries are made regarding the complex relationship between cancer and the immune system, our improved understanding will enable the development of next-generation immunotherapies that take advantage of those insights.
Another important takeaway was the need for improved combination approaches to enhance immunotherapy’s effectiveness. Most patients still don’t benefit from immunotherapy by itself, but combining treatments—multiple immunotherapies, chemotherapy, radiation, etc.—can give patients’ immune systems the boost necessary to overcome cancer’s defensive tactics.
However, between the complexity of individual cancers and the abundance of immunotherapy and chemotherapy agents to choose from, few simple and straightforward solutions have presented themselves. O’Donnell-Tormey emphasized that it will be crucial to develop better methods of collecting and integrating data from patients receiving immunotherapy, not only those being treated with currently approved regimens, but especially those undergoing cutting-edge treatments in clinical trials.
While not explicitly mentioned during the event, the Cancer Research Institute has supported the development of a potential solution to this problem. Last year, CRI partnered with Sage Bionetworks and the Institute for Systems Biology to develop the Cancer Research Institute iAtlas, an online database and web resource designed to help researchers understand how various treatments influence immune activity and, in turn, how that immune activity correlates with survival outcomes. Digging down into these details and identifying the “biomarkers” that shed light on the underlying biological situation will be necessary to understand why some patients respond to certain immunotherapies while others don’t. These details might also help doctors better understand and address the issue of immunotherapy-related side effects.
As O’Donnell-Tormey has mentioned previously, with immunotherapy we treat the patient not the disease, and therefore the data-driven foundation provided by platforms such as the CRI iAtlas offers the potential for discovering previously unknown connections between the immune system and patient health in the context of cancer.
In addition to paving the way for new immune-based strategies against cancer, these data-driven insights may also facilitate more effective clinical trial designs and ensure that the most effective approaches are more efficiently approved and made available to patients. CRI’s Clinical Accelerator, which recently launched a pancreatic cancer clinical trial with a novel immunotherapy combination, has been especially active in this area.
The more that is known about the circumstances that are necessary to foster effective immune responses against cancer, the better doctors can determine which combination approaches might work best for which patients and ensure that each patient receives the medicine that is right for him or her.
While we’ve thus far been able to “unleash” the immune system against cancer, we’ve yet to truly master its power and harness it in the most effective ways. The unprecedented collaboration taking place in the field today speaks to the realization that the challenges are too complicated for any organization or team to overcome alone. But as the 'Weaponizing Your Own Body’ panel highlighted, many of the problems impeding cancer immunotherapy’s progress are now being tackled collectively, and with encouraging energy, and that should make us all hopeful for a future immune to cancer.