Immunotherapy Receives a $100 Million Boost

The University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center — one of the most esteemed cancer laboratories and centers in the world — is in the vanguard of advancing and unlocking the amazing abilities of immunotherapy. And recently, MD Anderson Cancer Center’s work earned major plaudits and support: The hospital was awarded $100 million for its groundbreaking research.

At the center of the landmark science that garnered the financial support is Dr. Laurence Cooper, PhD, a Professor of Pediatrics and a Section Chief at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Dr. Cooper has been a ballast in the 21st century’s fight against cancer: A marquee name in the oncology world and an Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy (ACGT) Young Investigator, his work has propelled the immunotherapy forward immensely and awarded hope and treatment to those who need it most. Working alongside Dr. Cooper is the esteemed Perry Hackett, PhD, a professor at the College of Biological Sciences at Minnesota. Dr. Cooper and Hackett explore the realm of immunotherapy that pits patients’ CAR T cells against invasive cancer cells. MD Anderson Cancer Center has published the scientific details of the project and partnership in their newsroom. It’s here that the center’s president, Dr. Ron DePinho, lauds immunotherapy as “one of the most exciting approaches with curative potential in oncology today.”

The generous support stems from synthetic biology company Intrexon Corporation and its oncology partner, ZIOPHARM Oncology, in the shape of a licensing agreement. The backing of these two companies augurs a new era for immunotherapy. As brilliant minds like Dr. Cooper and his colleagues further harness the power of immunotherapy, biotech companies are able to connect with laboratories and work to bring the discoveries to patients who need it dearly. Immunotherapy is a beacon in the war on cancer: It promises an effective treatment that can battle cancer cells without the harrowing side effects of chemotherapy, radiation or surgery. And that dovetails completely with ACGT’s mission: Discovering new ways to treat and defeat cancer, while also preserving patients’ quality of life and minimizing painful side effects. 

Dr. Cooper’s pedigree with ACGT dates back over one decade. In 2003, as an Assistant Professor of Hematology and Oncology at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California, Dr. Cooper received a Young Investigator Grant. These ACGT grants support bright oncologists with novel ideas who display admirable promise and dedication. In 2006, Dr. Cooper transitioned to his role at MD Anderson Cancer Center. And ever since connecting with ACGT, Dr. Cooper has regularly assisted our foundation in evangelizing donors by spotlighting the amazing potential of immunotherapy. 

“The war on cancer has evolved… over these years,” Dr. Cooper said at a recent ACGT event in New York City, speaking to the growth and major successes of immunotherapy. The future of fighting cancer is immune-based therapy and gene therapy, he added. Indeed, the science has grown by leaps and bounds in just a few short decades, offering a renewed hope — and saving lives — to cancer patients who believed they had exhausted other treatment options. 

Dr. Cooper also understands the integral and indispensable role that philanthropy plays in the fight against cancer, particularly in the arena of immunotherapy. “It doesn’t fit the typical funding model,” he said at that same event, speaking to a room of donors, scientists and cancer survivors. “Philanthropy, thank goodness, has really stepped in and recognized the power.”

As philanthropists — and now biotech companies like Intrexon Corporation ZIOPHARM Oncology, too — continue to support immunotherapy, we can watch a new era of better, more effective cancer treatment unfold. This deep investment in immunotherapy highlights the field’s bright future, and our ability to one day transform the perils of cancer into a relic.


ACGT Advisor Makes Immunotherapy More Accessible

At Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy (ACGT), our vision is to transform cancer from a harrowing disease into a manageable diagnosis. We believe — along with the brilliant scientists who provide research, treatment and scientific counsel — that this can be unlocked through immunotherapy and cell and gene therapies. And so we are overjoyed that recently, immunotherapy has made another major stride forward in revolutionizing how we treat cancer.

That leap forward comes in the form of a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. The FDA – which is tasked with taking a close look at new cancer treatment methods and drugs — recently granted accelerated approval to Opdivo (nivolumab), an immunotherapy drug for melanoma patients. Opdivo holds a particular importance: It will be used to treat melanoma patients who are not responding to other drugs, and who are not candidates for surgery. The heartening news came out on December 22, 2014.  

Paramount to Opdivo’s development and success is Dr. Lieping Chen, a brilliant oncologist who serves on the ACGT Scientific Advisory Council. Dr. Chen helps ACGT to bestow grants upon the world’s most talented and visionary oncologists — oncologists who have, in turn, developed breakthrough drugs, research and clinical trials, and saved lives. Dr. Chen is also the Director of Yale Cancer Center’s Immunology Program, and a Professor in Cancer Research and of Immunobiology. Dr. Chen’s work on Opdivo was carried out alongside scientists Arlene Sharpe and Gordon Freeman. Opdivo is made by biopharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb. 

Opdivo functions in that same, amazing way that other immunotherapy drugs do: It harnesses the patient’s immune system, allowing the body to fight off the invading cancer cells. This approach is often less harrowing than the other options, like chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Opdivo’s ability to target melanoma specifically is also tremendous news. Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the United States, behind breast cancer, colon and rectal cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer. Further, estimates from the National Cancer Institute posit that over 75,000 Americans were diagnosed with melanoma in 2014 — and that nearly 10,000 Americans perished from the cancer.

For us at ACGT — and all others following the saga of Opdivo — it is incredibly heartening to see the tremendous power of immunotherapy translate from the laboratory into the drug phase. It represents the future of how we understand cancer, and cancer’s transformation into a disease that we can manage while still maintain quality of life.

This fantastic Opdivo development comes on the heels of another great announcement: The FDA’s accelerated approval of Keytruda (pembrolizumab), the Merck drug that also employs immunotherapy to battle cancer, specifically melanoma. Keytruda’s potential and positive implications have been reported on by The Wall Street JournalBarron’s, and FiercePharma. Indeed, media reports note Merck soon intends to expand Keytruda’s abilities to treat other cancer diagnoses, as well. 

These two drugs receiving the green light from the FDA designated 2014 as a watershed year for immunotherapy. The news also prepares us for an even bigger year: 2015 promises to hold so much spectacular news for the future of battling cancer. At ACGT, we look into the future eagerly and with a great deal of optimism. So many powerful factions — from scientists and donors to biotech and pharmaceutical companies — are uniting to eradicate cancer as we know it. 

We also wish to stress the importance individual charity can have. So many breakthroughs, like Dr. Chen’s and those of Opdivo and Keytruda, and financed by generous philanthropists and private contributors. These visionaries are making up for the dearth of financing from public entities. We invite you to learn more about donating, and how your gift can play a paramount role in stamping out cancer.