Immunotherapy Could Change the Way Mesothelioma and Other Cancers Are Treated

Female nurse injecting a patient

Almost everyone in the mesothelioma medical community today agrees that the future of treatment — and a potential cure — will involve some type of immunotherapy, which helps the body’s own immune system to target and destroy the cancer cells.

The pharmaceutical industry believes that, too.

It’s encouraging that both GlaxoSmithKline and Genentech, two industry leaders, signed multimillion-dollar licensing agreements recently with Immunocore, a small biotechnology company in the United Kingdom that is one of the leaders in T-Cell research and potential immunotherapy cancer drugs.

Each agreement, according to an Immunocore press release, could be worth more than $300 million in research funding.

T-Cell Receptor technology, which is the company’s focus, uses the body’s own immune system to find and kill diseased cells. Although Immunocore is focused on malignant melanoma, its findings eventually could translate to other cancers like mesothelioma that often have metastasized before being diagnosed, which limits the treatment options.

Changing Traditional Cancer Treatment

Traditional cancer treatment revolves around a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, but often is unable to kill all cancer cells without harming the healthy cells nearby, limiting its effectiveness.

The advantage of Immunocore’s potent cancer-targeted therapies is that they can be engineered to destroy only specific cells and avoid damage to healthy cells.

“Immunotherapy is radically different,” Bent Jakobsen, Immunocore’s chief scientific officer, told The Independent news organization in the U.K. “It doesn’t do away with other cancer treatments, but it adds something to the arsenal that has one unique feature – it may have the potency to actually cure cancer. All the pharma companies have come to the realization that immunotherapy may hold the ultimate key to cancer.”

Immunocore, after many years of laboratory research, is in the midst of Phase I and Phase II trials involving advanced melanoma. The company believes its biological drugs, known as ImmTACs,  can be designed to work for “multiple novel cancer targets.”

A spokesperson for Immunocore told Asbestos.com that they “are developing a therapy for malignant melanoma. Immunocore is not developing a treatment for mesothelioma.”

Mesothelioma is a rare but aggressive cancer that is caused by the inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers that become lodged in the lining surrounding the vital organs. It can take anywhere from 10-50 years after exposure to asbestos before the cancer develops.

“If you want to make an impact on cancer, you need something that is incredibly potent,” Jakobsen said. “And you can never make a single mechanism drug that would come anywhere near a T-Cell in terms of its potency.”

T-Cells Are the Key

T-cells in the blood are naturally designed to protect people by killing foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria. They usually don’t help against cancer because those multiplying cells are produced by the body itself, and are not recognized as foreign.

Immunocore has designed small protein molecules that can stick only to the cancer cells, signaling the T-cells in the blood to attack wherever they are, possibly ridding the body of all cancer cells without touching the healthy ones.

The key to success with the ImmTACs is helping the T-cells distinguish between cancer cells and normal, healthy cells.

Immunocore a Leader

“There are a lot of companies working with antibodies, but we are virtually the only company in the world that has managed to work with T-cells,” Jakobsen said. “It has taken 20 years, and from that point, we are unique.”

Immunocore, which is located in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom, was founded in 2008. It was operating as part of Avidex, which was founded in 1999 as an off-shoot of the University of Oxford to develop T-cell Receptor technology, the project started by Jakobsen.

As a cancer treatment, immunotherapy has been met with varying success and still is considered alternative therapy. Researchers, though, continue to work toward their eventual goal, which is the modification that will turn it into a cancer cure. Mesothelioma is one cancer that still is looking for a cure.

“We believe Immunocore is the leading company in T-cell receptor biology and drug development,” said James Sabry, vice president at Genentech, in the press release. “We hope this collaboration will lead to breakthrough therapies for cancer patients with unmet medical needs.”


Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His most recent experience is in researching and writing about asbestos litigation issues and asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma. If you have a story idea for Tim, please email him at tpovtak@asbestos.com

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