When it comes to fighting cancer, new technology approaches like synthetic biology are allowing scientists to harness the immune system with greater precision than ever before.
We are on the cusp of a new wave of oncology therapies that could bring major breakthroughs and make a meaningful difference in patients’ lives. We're taking new approaches to immuno-oncology and molecular oncology that are changing all expectations for cancer therapies and empowering our researchers to address patients’ greatest concerns.
Currently, molecular oncology teams are harnessing chemistry in unprecedented ways to develop drugs that target molecules critical to cancer development. Meanwhile, immuno-oncology teams are working on new ways to stimulate the body’s own immune defenses into mounting a strong attack on cancer cells, reducing the toxic side effects seen with many other molecular cancer therapies. This, combined with an increasingly diverse toolbox of technologies, has significantly accelerated cancer drug discovery. In fact, the global cancer therapy market is expected to grow 12% per year to about $250 billion by 2024. (Sanofi develops and sells cancer treatment pharmaceuticals.)
To make greater strides for patients, the health care industry must work harder to help them by developing cancer therapies with more tolerable side effects. And more efforts should be put into moving from complex individualized cell therapies to developing "off-the-shelf" therapies based on cells from universal healthy donors, so we can simplify the logistics of treatment, lower production costs, and, in doing so, potentially give more access to far more patients.
This all sounds great in theory. But side effects are a major consideration as we explore more powerful immunotherapies. I’ve spoken with many patients who share how treatments have impacted them: nausea, intense body aches, and problems thinking or remembering things, to name just a few. One patient recounted a horrible 72 hours of extreme nausea and related how she avoided brushing her hair because it was falling out.
But the most important impact in her case was on her mental health. This was overlooked for her, as it is for so many people. Anxiety and depression are common as patients struggle to cope with a potential death sentence. Add to that the harsh effects on their bodies—from weight fluctuations to extreme exhaustion—and it can be incredibly challenging to process a cancer diagnosis.
We have to figure out ways to make oncology treatment more tolerable. One example of progress on this front is from synthetic biology startup Synthorx, which was acquired by Sanofi last year. While it’s still in the early days of testing, researchers there have developed a molecule that appears to mitigate the often-intense side effects many people receiving cancer treatment experience. This is accomplished by expanding immune cells that specifically attack cancer and not other parts of the body.
In another case, Stanford University researchers are starting to identify approaches where synthetic biology can spare healthy tissue from cancer treatment. Many biotech startups, such as Precigen, Twist Bioscience, and Octant Bio, are also striving to leverage synthetic biology to lessen the impacts of treatments’ side effects for patients.
In addition to developing new, better medicine, we must also fight cancer by broadening patient access. One way to do so is by simplifying logistics, especially with CAR T and other cell therapies, in which T cells are collected from a patient, engineered in the laboratory, and then reintroduced into the patient so they will seek out and attack cancer cells.
Offering people living with cancer the possibility of an off-the-shelf therapy, rather than creating a bespoke solution for each patient, would be transformative. For one, it would resolve critical issues in manufacturing. When there are disruptions to manufacturing chains, or delays in shipping, patients are particularly vulnerable.
While limiting side effects and increasing access are vital, this can’t happen until we manufacture immune cells for wide-scale adoption. The mRNA-based approach, which took a giant leap forward with the development of COVID-19 vaccines, has the potential to bring high efficacy and improved safety to cancer therapy, as mRNA can direct the body to produce a range of cancer-fighting immune cells.
Not only that, but mRNA is easier to manufacture and produce at an industrial scale than protein-based treatments: Manufacturers only need the mRNA sequences, rather than going through the traditional process of purifying antigens, which can take months. Many eyes are on the 252 active studies of mRNA in cancer research, as drug companies and biotechs prepare to greatly expand treatment options for cancer patients.
We can clearly see the next wave in cancer immunotherapy on the horizon. We are converging toward new, targeted therapies that could potentially help achieve durable remission in patients and more tolerable side effects. It is impossible to overstate what that means for patients and the cancer treatment community.
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