In this week’s spotlight, we’re going to take a look at two different methods that are coming to the forefront of the battle against cancer: immune-oncology and cell apoptosis. If these names sound as confusing to you as they do to us, don’t worry; these technologies are actually much easier to wrap your mind around that you might at first think. The two companies we are also going to mention today come from each end of the size spectrum for biotech: one is AbbVie (ABBV), a large, well-known name, while the other is the much smaller Soligenix (SNGX), which we are following here at BTA.
Using the Immune System to Fight Cancer
Let’s start with AbbVie, which has been in the news recently with FDA approval of its new drug elotuzamab, which is designed to treat those with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, in a revolutionary new way. Usual cancer treatments involve chemotherapy or radiation, but the side-effect of these treatments is that they treat cancerous cells and non-cancerous (“normal”) cells equally—they kill them both. Immuno-oncology takes a different approach: it is the use of drugs to help our bodies’ own immune system (the same system that fights our colds and flus) to fight cancer. Because cancerous cells grow so quickly and are not foreign to the body, sometimes the immune system needs assistance in fighting them. This is where immuno-oncology comes in. By helping the body’s immune system to fight the cancerous cell, this type of therapy attempts to target those cancerous cells without causing damage to the other cells in the body.
Sometimes that requires specifically-targeted approaches. Take AbbVie’s drug Imbruvica, for example, which tackles chronic lymphocytic leukemia (also a blood cancer). Imbruvica works by “blocking an enzyme” that “promotes survival” of some cells that can become cancerous, “thereby delaying the progression of the cancer,” according to a European study.
We can think of immuno-oncology, therefore, as a hand up to the body to fight cancer on its own, so that it can identify the cancer cells itself without causing collateral damage.
Cell Apoptosis—Telling Cancer to Kill Itself
But what if, instead of the immune system killing cancerous cells, we could somehow have the cancerous cells kill themselves? That’s an admittedly simple way of describing cell apoptosis, or induced cell death. Part of the problem with cancer cells is that they are cells that have lost the ability to control their growth and division—they keep growing, and keep splitting. They don’t know when to die. The body, however, has an ordinary method of regulating cells called cell apoptosis—when cells just die of their own accord. One possible method being explored to battle cancer is to induce apoptosis in the cancer cells—in a way, induce them to self-destruct.
This is where both Soligenix and AbbVie come in. Soligenix is a small biotech with a Phase 2 drug called SGX-301 that is being fast-tracked. SGX-301 works by combining an ingredient called hypericin with light exposure (or “photoactivation”), which the company believes induces cell death in a “localized” area, namely, the cancerous area. Perhaps most significantly, hypericin can be activated with visible light (the same light you and I can see) rather than with ultraviolet light (which can sometimes itself cause cancer). This means that there is no need to risk causing other cancers in order to treat the cutaneous T-cell lymphoma that SGX-301 is trying to combat.
According to Business Insider, AbbVie is looking at a very similar idea. As we talked about, part of the problem with cancer cells is that they don’t know when to die; in fact, they can live “much longer than healthy cells.” The venetoclax treatment, which is in phase 3 trials right now, is designed to basically “go in and tell those [cancer] cells to die,” which can give more space to the healthy cells and help them survive.
Life and death: immunotherapy and cell apoptosis. These are just two of the ways in which we may soon be battling blood cancer. But as Gary Gordon, the VP of AbbVie’s oncology development department, states in BI, perhaps the most exciting part of these new therapies is that there are so many of them. He compares it to have multiple “arrows in the quiver.” Cancer is a multifaceted disease. It can come in an arsenal of forms; now we are getting closer to having an arsenal of our own to fight it.