Lessons from evolution: from innate immunity to novel cancer immunotherapies

Christopher Arendt, PhD, Head, Oncology Cell Therapy and Therapeutic Area Unit, Takeda Oncology

Immunotherapies on the rise

In recent years, we’ve seen remarkable progress in combatting devastating cancers, with the rise of immunotherapies across a breadth of therapeutic modalities, from antibody-based immunomodulators to cell-based therapies to other emerging technologies. And yet, while there are more than 30 approved immunotherapies on the market today, only about 15-20% of patients respond to available treatments, demonstrating a necessity for more effective and tolerable options.

In light of our ultimate goal of offering curative-potential therapies to as many people living with cancer as possible, we now have the opportunity to build upon these successes by leveraging our ever-expanding insights into new mechanisms of action at the level of the immune system to advance standards of care.

Leading the way: Immunotherapies leveraging adaptive immunity

Today’s immunotherapies tap into the natural immune response, often through approaches that specifically engage adaptive immunity, an arm of immunity that forms the basis for our modern approach to vaccination. In the field of cancer therapies, adaptive immune mechanisms focus in particular on T lymphocytes, a cavalry of highly specialized cells that individually possess unique receptors to seek out and destroy “abnormal” cells, including cells that are infected or mutated.  

Immune checkpoint inhibitors are designed to augment anti-tumoral T cell responses, while chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T cell therapies are predicated on a “synthetic evolution” approach, in which a large swath of the T cell army is engineered to respond to a given tumor-associated antigen, such as CD19 or B-cell maturation antigen (BCMA).

Just as these T cell-focused immunotherapies have illuminated the incredible potential of the immune system’s “firepower” in combating tumors, they have also provided insights into further trickery exploited by cancers to gain an upper hand. 

New paradigms: The potential of innate immunity

As we look toward new mechanisms of action to address resistance and relapse to current immunotherapies, there is compelling rationale for broadening our purview outside of the adaptive immune system. 

From the day we are born, the innate immune system serves as the body’s first defense mechanism against disease. Innate immunity is non-specific, meaning individual cells are capable of responding to a wide breadth of insults, with the power to orchestrate a broad arsenal of immune cell types and mechanisms that help to fight off viruses or, potentially, cancers. Unlike adaptive immunity, innate immunity has evolved to provide immediate and broad immune responses to these threats, offering a quicker immune attack and access to a wide array of mechanisms to promote disease resolution. Novel and emerging approaches that leverage innate immunity may have the ability to transform the current state of cancer care in exciting ways. By harnessing the untapped power of the innate immune system to attack cancer, we may be able to overcome the limitations of adaptive immunity through additional mechanisms and tools that evolution has made available for therapeutic modulation. 

At Takeda Oncology, our commitment to science, collaboration and innovation includes a robust pipeline designed to harness the power of innate immunity to broaden the impact of immunotherapies through novel approaches and first-in-class mechanisms of action. We’ve extended our scope to investigate innate immunity enhancers and cell platforms, tumor-selective cell engagers and tumor micro-environment disrupters to further expand our armory against this disease. 

New data at the American Society of Hematology (ASH) 2021 Annual Meeting

Each year, we look forward to joining the hematology community to share the latest advancements in hematologic oncology therapies at ASH. Collectively, we live and breathe the same principles: discover, develop and deliver potentially life-transforming medicines to patients around the globe. 

At this year’s annual congress, we look forward to sharing early data from some of our pipeline programs that leverage innate immunity, an approach that could drive potent and effective immune attacks against cancer, outsmarting it in ways never seen before. We’re proud to share emerging data, especially on the heels of exciting news on the expansion of our immuno-oncology portfolio as it sets the stage for many important learnings on the potential of the innate immune system to be deployed to fight cancers. 

Looking ahead 

The future of oncology R&D is bright, and we’re proud to connect with the hematology community to help propel science even further and drive progress that patients and their families deserve. I’d like to thank the patients and investigators who participate in and lead the research that brings us closer to achieving our ultimate aspiration of curing cancer.

Learn more about Takeda Oncology’s data and overall presence at this year’s congress. 

1 Johns Hopkins Medicine. Immunotherapy: Precision Medicine in Action. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/inhealth/about-us/immunotherapy-precision-medicine-action-policy-brief.html. Accessed October 7, 2021.

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