In Vivo feature titled, Cancer Vaccines: Is There A Future Beyond Trial And Error?

While it has been a challenging R&D field, Looney notes that several key advances may soon usher in a new era in vaccinology.

Immunomic Therapeutics CEO William Hearl was recently interviewed by journalist William Looney for an In Vivo feature titled, Cancer Vaccines: Is There A Future Beyond Trial And Error? Click the article title to read in full or check out the key takeaways below:

1. Support for cancer vaccine R&D remains strong. In the article Looney notes that close to 400 therapeutic vaccine trials are listed as active on clinicaltrials.gov. Investors and big pharma are undoubtedly excited about the field and for good reason: Global revenue for cancer vaccines is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of almost 17 percent, according to a recent Research and Markets report. That means revenue will triple from $2.5 billion in 2015 to $7.5 billion in 2022. It’s all good news for companies like ours — but that doesn’t mean the path to market will be easy.

2. Finding the right antigen remains a challenge. How do you design a drug that targets cancer cells while leaving healthy tissue intact? Differentiating between the two can be difficult, the article explains, in part because they share so much DNA (after all, cancer cells are just healthy cells gone rogue). Through our UNITE platform, we are developing a range of tactics to overcome this problem. One approach is to target viruses, such as cytomegalovirus (CMV) in brain cancers. Research has shown that around 90 percent of gliomas express CMV, but that the surrounding tissue does not. Immunomic is also developing neoantigen-based vaccines. These target ‘de novo’ mutations that arise in each individual’s cancer as the cells rapidly divide. Training the immune system to seek out CMV or de novo mutations could help us achieve the Holy Grail combination; a highly targeted therapy with a low side effect profile.

3. Tumors build many layers of defense. Another challenge for drugs in our space is penetrating the tumor microenvironment — the area immediately surrounding the tumor. This tissue is typically immunosuppressive, meaning it will dampen down any immune response that can be triggered. One solution: Pair the vaccine with an existing PD-1/PD-L1 checkpoint inhibitor. Drugs like Keytruda and Opdivo inhibit the binding of PD-1/PD-L1, thereby disarming another defense mechanism the cancer may have. With this one-two punch, we believe our vaccines may have a better chance of tackling hard-to-treat cancers.

4. Academic research in this field is powerful. A lot of challenges remain, the author notes, particularly when dealing with the adaptive mechanisms of tumors and their inherent heterogeneity. Fortunately, a number of promising research angles and early-phase clinical trials are being advanced in academia. We know firsthand the benefits this work can bring. Immunomic licensed its foundational technology from Johns Hopkins University in 2006 and continues to partner with top institutions to further the UNITE cancer vaccine platform.

5. There is no clear leader in the cancer vaccine race. For Looney; “The big question – which no one yet has the answer to – is which of the many immunologic vaccine approaches has the best chance of producing breakthrough results.” We like our chances for a simple reason; we have a lot of horses in the race. Our UNITE platform can produce a wide range of vaccines, targeting different antigens and triggering a broad immune response. At the same time, our R&D team has been optimizing the adjuvants and delivery methods we use to maximize the power of each vaccine.