Immunotherapy combos could provide a new path forward for troubled cancer vaccine field

Johan Vansteenkiste

When Johan Vansteenkiste of Belgium University Hospitals Leuven reported the full results of GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) MAGE-A3 failure at the European Society of Medical Oncology's annual congress last weekend, he wasn't the first to outline a cancer vaccine flop. But he did offer a way out from under the dark cloud hanging over the field, and it's one that some cancer vaccine makers are already embracing.

Checkpoint inhibitors--like Bristol-Myers Squibb's ($BMY) Opdivo and Merck's ($MRK) Keytruda--may be able to complement once-failed vaccines, helping them realize some of their potential.

"For future progress, I think a combination of vaccination and checkpoint inhibition may be of major interest," he told the ESMO group in Madrid, as quoted by Reuters.

Without checkpoint inhibitors, cancer vaccines--intended to stimulate the immune system--have successfully triggered immune responses, but that hasn't stopped cancer cells from escaping undetected, the news service notes.

The result? High-profile misfires for companies like Glaxo and Merck KGaA, which threw in the towel on its own cancer vaccine, tecemotide, last month.

But with checkpoint inhibitors, designed to prevent tumor cells from slipping away unnoticed, they may be able to do just that. "You have this really complementary biologic approach," David Reese, Amgen's VP of translational sciences, told FierceVaccines in June.

Some vaccinemakers have already caught on to the potential of immunotherapy combos. Amgen ($AMGN) is testing its melanoma fighter, T-Vec, in conjunction with Keytruda. And New Jersey biotech Advaxis ($ADXS), too, struck an August agreement to test its vaccine alongside the Merck drug.

And it's not just vaccinemakers who are seeking out combo partners. Last month, Severin Schwan, CEO of cancer giant Roche ($RHHBY), said his company was exploring ways of coupling its own checkpoint inhibitors with vaccines that had missed the mark when given on their own, Reuters notes.

- see Reuters' take

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