In this blog series, we showcase top decision makers at pharmaceutical and biotech companies working to advance cancer immunotherapy. They describe their outlook on the opportunities and challenges facing the field, and share where they think the science of immuno-oncology will lead us. Through their generous sponsorship of our research and patient education programs, these companies help to further the mission of the Cancer Research Institute and bring us closer to a future immune to cancer.
In today’s installment, the first in our series, we introduce you to Thomas Hudson, M.D., vice president, head of oncology discovery and early development at AbbVie. His company combines advanced science, expertise, and passion to solve serious health issues and have a remarkable impact on people’s lives—a mission he’s passionate about that motivates him every day.
Prior to joining Abbvie, Dr. Hudson was president and scientific director of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, where he led the institute’s work in translational research for the prevention, detection, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. Internationally renowned for his work in genomics and human genome variation, his past positions include leadership roles as founder and director of the McGill University and Genome Quebec Innovation Centre and assistant director of the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research. Dr. Hudson has served as a scientific advisor to many public organizations, including Genome England, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NIH), and the STARR Cancer Foundation.
What is your background and how does it support you in your role at AbbVie today?
I was trained as a physician who specialized in internal medicine and clinical immunology. My research career began at the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research. I joined the Human Genome Project at its beginning, where I led the team that mapped the human and mouse genomes. During and after the sequencing of the human genome, I actively pursued studies of human genome variation in human populations. This research has provided the scientific community with more than 2,000 genetic tests for human conditions.
Following the advent of next generation sequencing technologies, I led an international consortium in cancer genome sequencing. I brought together successful multi-disciplinary research teams from dozens of organizations internationally to create strong relationships between clinical researchers and discovery teams.
Fostering that culture of collaboration has served me well in my role as vice president of oncology discovery and early development at AbbVie. Our vision at AbbVie is to become a recognized leader in oncology with a rich and innovative pipeline of transformative cancer therapies.
Our vision at AbbVie is to become a recognized leader in oncology with a rich and innovative pipeline of transformative cancer therapies.
At AbbVie, we strive to achieve this by combining our deep knowledge in core areas of biology with cutting-edge technologies and working together with our partners—scientists, clinical experts, industry peers, and patients—to discover and develop medicines that drive transformational improvements in cancer treatment.
What brought you to AbbVie, and what did you set out to accomplish there?
I came to AbbVie with the hope that my background, combined with the existing scientific expertise at AbbVie, could help bring innovative treatments to patients faster. The possibility of conquering cancer is what has motivated me from the beginning of my career and it is what keeps me going each day.
I was excited that my mandate at AbbVie includes immuno-oncology (I-O). Tumor immunology was a major research theme throughout my immunology training at McGill University in the late 1980s. At the time, my laboratory was involved in developing in vitro and in vivo models to study macrophage killing of tumor cells. We and others were excited by the prospect of using the immune system to eradicate tumors. For several decades, the successes achieved in the lab were rarely replicated in humans. I often heard the saying that tumor immunology “over-promised but under-delivered.” This has changed due to the heroic efforts of many scientists. There has been an explosion of technologies and approaches to use the immune system to treat cancer and it is exciting to see that work come to fruition.
I often heard the saying that tumor immunology “over-promised but under-delivered.” This has changed due to the heroic efforts of many scientists.
In your opinion, what are the three biggest opportunities in immuno-oncology in 2018 and beyond?
I believe one of the biggest opportunities in I-O is truly understanding what combination therapies already in development can impact the greatest number of patients. It is likely that better treatment paradigms will be achieved by combinations of medicines that will target multiple immune and non-immune pathways.
One approach to accelerate combinations is to develop robust, standardized biomarkers and related clinical data that support the selection and testing of promising therapeutic combinations. To achieve this vision, AbbVie and other pharmaceutical companies have joined the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and others in the Partnership for Accelerating Cancer Therapies (PACT). PACT was created to facilitate robust, systematic and uniformly conducted clinical testing of known and exploratory biomarkers that enable better understanding of response and resistance to I-O combinations.
I am also witnessing a number of strategies aimed at converting silent tumors into immune active tumors. Any step in this direction will translate into more patients experiencing durable clinical responses that are associated with I-O therapies.
It is likely that better treatment paradigms will be achieved by combinations of medicines that will target multiple immune and non-immune pathways.
What’s the single biggest challenge in immuno-oncology today?
One of the greatest challenges in I-O drug development is the lack of pre-clinical models reliably predictive of clinical efficacy. This is a particularly pressing issue for immune-silent tumors.
What role do you envision nonprofits like the Cancer Research Institute can play in accelerating the field of immuno-oncology?
Tackling the toughest challenges in immuno-oncology is going to take scientists, physicians, industry peers, patient groups, and most importantly, patients. I applaud the efforts of nonprofits like the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) that are driving forward innovations in oncology. CRI plays an important role in bringing immune therapies to patients, helping the industry better understand patient needs, providing education, and supporting increased access to care.
I applaud the efforts of nonprofits like the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) that are driving forward innovations in oncology.
How significant a part does immuno-oncology play in AbbVie’s pipeline and overall business strategy?
AbbVie was launched as a company five years ago and since then we have made incredible progress in advancing our pipeline as an R&D organization. When we were founded, our leaders aimed to deliver innovative medicines that solve serious health issues and have an impact on people's lives. Oncology was selected as one of the three main research pillars. Because this coincided with breakthroughs in immuno-oncology, it is not surprising that this became a core component of our research. We brought together existing groups in cancer biology, immunology, and biologics, and recruited leaders from academia and industry. Immuno-oncology is one of the four major programs of AbbVie oncology, along with apoptosis (a core strength of our scientists), B-cell signaling (through the acquisition of Pharmacyclics), and cancer stem cells (through the acquisition of Stemcentrx).
From your perspective, what is the science pointing to as the next big thing in cancer treatment?
There are many new cancer therapies in development that are associated with biomarkers that correlate with patient response.
The use of biomarkers that look for DNA mutations in tumors of patients is already being used to support treatment decisions for targeted therapies. Biomarkers for immune therapies require a comprehensive analysis of cancer genes to help detect the signature of immune cells in a specific tumor. Given the capabilities of these technologies, it is possible they may become routine in the diagnosis and monitoring of tumors.
If a patient has a detected tumor in the blood, we can quickly sequence the genome of that tumor. And if that tumor comes back, you can sequence its genome again and be able to see what has changed, so your treatment can specifically target certain cells in the tumor.
Research has come so far in a relatively short period of time. I was fortunate to be part of the team of researchers behind the Human Genome Project, and it took us nearly a decade to map the human genome. Today, we are able to map human genomes regularly in the lab in a week or just a few days.
And yet, in many ways, we are just at the beginning of the personalized medicine revolution. The opportunity to harness the power of genetics and genomics to identify new insights into the pathophysiology of cancer represents tremendous opportunity. Our goal is to use genomic data to predict the most effective treatment options for patients.
in many ways, we are just at the beginning of the personalized medicine revolution.
To learn more about AbbVie, visit www.abbvie.com.
Headshot courtesy of Thomas Hudson. Banner photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash.