For nearly 15 years I’ve been working in the clinical research space, working for various Contract Research Organizations (CROs) and Functional Service Providers (FSPs) as well as a biotechnology firm that had a promising oncologic drug candidate to fight prostate cancer. Two weeks ago, I attended my first industry conference while unemployed and living in Australia to support my husband during his enrollment in a phase I clinical trial for a cancer vaccine (Visit here to read more about how that journey began).
Lucky for me, the AusBiotech conference was taking place in Brisbane, starting only days after we arrived. While I always knew patients and finding cures for the incurable gave me purpose and were at the core of why I do what I do, this trip has given it a whole new meaning. It really hit home.
As you could imagine, with such topics as cancer vaccines and immunotherapy being at the forefront in cancer research today, my interest in such has taken on a whole new meaning. When Tom decided he wanted to enroll in a trial half way around the world, to hopefully prevent his HPV related head and neck cancer from returning, it shed new light on the clinical research process. Here I was at this biotechnology conference in the presence of the very individuals that have been trying to find these answers. These individuals were among the pioneers that are trying to save my husband’s life. I hung on their every word.
I attended such talks as ‘Immunology/Oncology- Recent Advances’ chaired by Prof. Rajiv Khanna, Senior Scientist, QIMR Berghofer. Panelists for the discussion included Dr. Michael Rosenzweig, Executive Director Tumor Immunotherapy, Merck; Dr. Goslik Schepers, Investment Manager, Brandon Capital Partners; Dr. Anand Gautum, Senior Director and Head, External Science and Innovation, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia, Pfizer and Dr. Daniel Baker, VP Janssen R&D.
One such highlight of the talk, which has me reflecting on the future of Tom’s care, was understanding the importance of how the integration of immunotherapy or immune based therapy in combination with other treatments will impact clinical outcomes. What I learned is that clinical outcomes need to be clearly determined for drugs like PD-1, because they are hugely reliant on the biomarker discovery program. As certain biomarkers need to be present in order for the drug to provide a larger probability of success. What they were referring to was combination treatment, such as cancer vaccine paired with immune checkpoint therapy.
What I now know from further research is that vaccines “rev up” the immune system but the tumor has a “immunosupressive microenvironment” that may prevent the vaccine from working. That’s why combination therapy and the biomarker discovery program are so important. Vaccination alone, may not be the answer.
Let me also point out that on October 1, 2018 , merely weeks before our trip to Australia, the Nobel Assembly decided to jointly award the Nobel Prize in medicine to two scientists for the discovery of PD-1 and CTLA-4 immune checkpoint therapy, James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo.
I’ve also learned that there has been success in clinical trials in Texas For this combination therapy as they’ve seen a 33% response rate in tumors. (https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-09-vaccine-anti-pd1-drug-incurable-hpv-related.html).
All of this is very promising in the world of cancer research. While scientists have been trying for nearly a century to determine how vaccines can be used to fight cancer, I am energized by the progress being made in clinical research today and have put a great deal of faith in those that are pioneers in this effort, such as Ian Frazer, the Principal Investigator for Tom’s trial.
For people who are fighting this disease now, time matters. What this translates to for companies and scientists trying to find these answers are how do they do this in the fastest and most cost-effective way possible.
I believe the answer to this is having access to data in the most efficient way possible, clinical trials rely on data being aggregated from many different sources. The answers are out there and it is only our ability to rely on technology and access to this data that will ultimately expedite this process and save the lives of those that are fighting so hard to live or have better quality of life. We need to harness the use of technology to reduce the life-cycle of clinical development without compromising patient care.
We also need to focus on how options are made available to patients seeking treatment, even if that means experimental treatment. I know, first-hand, what sacrifices are willing to be made. We have to empower patients and ensure they have all the information they need to make better informed decisions. One that not only benefits the researchers and the future of clinical development but one that increases patient’s overall odds of survival.