The promise of immunotherapy - and bridging the funding gap
The ICR's Professor Paul Workman, has featured in a BBC Newsnight investigation into promising new cancer treatment approaches including immunotherapy – and the financial stumbling blocks that could stop these advances reaching patients.
Professor Workman, head of the ICR’s Division of Cancer Therapeutics, explained how the ICR was working creatively to overcome these considerable financial challenges, and bring new discoveries to patients. One key focus was working in collaboration with industry to help bridge this “valley of death” between basic research and patient benefit.
New innovations over recent years – including 3D visualisation technology – have led to the discovery of many promising cancer treatments, Professor Workman said.
As well as the design of small molecule drugs that block the effects of cancer genes, scientists at the ICR recently published work on one form of immunotherapy that is showing promising results in early patient trials.
The study, led by Dr Kevin Harrington from the ICR and colleagues at the University of Leeds, showed how a promising viral therapy called reovirus can sneak up on tumours undetected by hitching a ride on blood cells.
The virus can deliver a double blow to cancer by not only killing cancer cells directly, but also triggering an immune response - like a vaccine – that helps eliminate residual cancer cells.
But as Newsnight presenter Susan Watts explains: “The science is exciting, but it’s struggling to get beyond the lab.”
Since the financial crash, funding for cancer research has slowed as governments, charities and venture capitalists all feel the pinch.
“Right now we've got a combination of the most exciting science and the most frustrating financial situation,” Professor Workman says in the programme.
"We've got the cancer genome, we've got immune approaches. We've got incredible science and incredible ideas and we can't fund it. So we have to come up with creative approaches.”
He said there needed to be a partnership between industry, government and non-profit organisations to bridge the “'valley of death between excellent basic science and pharmaceutical development”.
As the pharmaceutical industry has moved away from basic research and the more innovative translational projects, not-for-profit organisations such as the ICR can play an increasingly important role in drug discovery, he said.
They can carry out risky early-stage research, before partnering with a pharmaceutical company to bring the drugs to market – and ultimately to patients.
Professor Workman’s team has already demonstrated considerable success at this approach, which has led to 16 new drug candidates being discovered over the past six years, with six of these progressing to Phase I clinical trial and one drug – abiraterone – being licensed in the US, Canada and Europe for patients with advanced prostate cancer. This success was recently recognised by the American Association of Cancer Research’s Team Science Award.
Professor Workman said government could also facilitate many aspects of drug discovery – including funding basic science at universities and other research institutes, creating an environment in which it is easier for the pharmaceutical industry and biotech companies to operate, and acting as a catalyst for new partnerships and collaborations.
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View the full programme on BBC iPlayer
Read the related story on BBC online