In one of the biggest deals in the history of cancer, the pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb has acquired drugmaker Celgene. For cancer survivors and their loved ones, the deal could mean accelerated progress in treatments ranging from immunotherapy to cancer vaccines. The combined companies are inevitably going to have a lot of say in where investment in cancer
“This is a period of rapid progress,” Dr. Giovanni Caforio, chairman and CEO of Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) told SurvivorNet in an interview shortly before the deal was announced earlier this year. “Ultimately, I think it is [through] the combination of multiple treatment strategies that we’d be able to offer the most hope to the largest number of patients. Through immunotherapy [for instance], we’ve already transformed the lives of many patients that now have prolonged survival — but there is a lot still to be done.”Read More
The Promising New Class of Drugs — What are Checkpoint Inhibitors?Lenkowsky went on to explain to SurvivorNet how a lot of really promising data recently emerged from a big clinical trial called CHECKMATE. The data further showed that a certain class of immunotherapy drugs called checkpoint inhibitors could (in this case, the Bristol-Myers Squibb drugs, Opdivo and Yervoy) had the potential to significantly improve survival rates for people with lung cancer when used in combination with chemotherapy.
Checkpoint inhibitors work by empowering the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
The reason that the body's immune system doesn't always naturally do this has to do with markers found on cancer cells. These markers bind with other markers found on immune T-cells to create signals telling the immune system, “don’t attack.”
"It's a Jedi mind trick that tells the immune system 'move on by ignoring me,'" Dr. Geoffrey Oxnard, a thoracic oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute told SurvivorNet in a previous conversation about immunotherapy in lung cancer. "If we block that signal, the immune system wakes up, sees the cancer, and attacks." Checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapy drugs do exactly that: they block the "don't attack" signal.
Dr. Jim Allison, whose discovery of checkpoint inhibitors won him the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, told SurvivorNet that, with the emergence and growth of these new checkpoint inhibitors, “For the first time, we're getting truly curative therapies in many kinds of diseases. And not just in melanoma but in lung cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, Hodgkin's lymphoma, Merkel cell cancer, head and neck cancer. It goes on and on."
Why Some Therapies Work Better for Some but Not Others
The number of people able to benefit from immunotherapy drugs like checkpoint inhibitors has been increasing at a rapid pace that some have lauded as "revolution" in cancer treatment. In 2011, only one percent of patients with cancer were eligible to receive checkpoint inhibitors, and today, that number has climbed to 43 percent. But although 43 percent of patients are eligible to be treated with these drugs, only 12 percent of people treated with them actually end up seeing their cancers respond. The number is still a very small percentage of patients in the grand scheme of things.
Dr. Caforio said that one of the main things he’s focusing on with Bristol-Myers Squibb is research on why the current therapies work for some people, but not others.
“For us to be effective, what’s important to do first is to identify the groups of patients who are most likely to respond to different combination strategies,” he said. “There won’t be one answer that is helpful to every patient. It will be increasingly about precision medicine.”
Precision medicine is the customization of healthcare treatments to specific people depending on their individual disease. Dr. Caforio said that with continued investment in medical research and innovation, there’s a lot of hope in the cancer field.