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Pharmaceutical giants eye tiny startup company for drug that could beat cancer

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
July 15th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Two international pharmaceutical giants have their eyes set on a tiny, unassuming British startup company called Immunocore. Housed in a nondescript, single-story business park in Oxfordshire, Immunocore has found a way to use the mighty T-cell to fight tumors, paving the way for a possible cure for cancer.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Immunocore has signed contracts with two of the biggest players in the pharmaceuticals industry in the last three weeks. The agreements may soon lead to a huge influx of cash in order to fund research on cancer immunotherapy, using the body's own immune system to fight tumor cells.

It's possible that Immunocore is the only company in the world that has developed a way of harnessing the power of the immune system's natural-born killer cells. T-cells found in the blood cells of humans, designed over millions of years of evolution to seek out and kill invading pathogens.

Executives of the drugs industry, known for their caution in funding research believes that Immunocore may have found a detour in order for future cancer patients are able to fend off their disease with their own immune defenses.

The former academics who set up Immunocore have worked hard on realizing their dream of developing a totally new approach to cancer treatment - and it is beginning to look as if it will finally pay off. "Immunotherapy is radically different," Bent Jakobsen, the Danish-born chief scientific officer of Immunocore says. Jakobsen began the study T-cells 20 years ago while working at the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

"It doesn't do away with the other cancer treatments by any means, but it adds something to the arsenal that has one unique feature - it may have the potency to actually cure cancer," Jakobsen says.

Jakobsen and his colleague's research has piqued the interest of both Genentech in California, owned by the Swiss giant Roche, and Britain's GlaxoSmithKline. Both companies have signed deals with Immunocore that could result in up to half a billion pounds being invested in new cancer treatments based on its unique T-cell therapy.

Cancer immunotherapy, or immuno-oncology as it is technically called, represents a sea change in terms of cancer treatment. Cancer in the past has been largely treated by "slicing," via surgery, "poisoning" via chemotherapy or "burning" via radiotherapy. All three methods are burdened with the inherent problem of how to spare healthy tissue from irreparable damage while ensuring that every cancer cell is killed, deactivated or removed.

The new approach, based on the immune system, a complex web of cells, tissues and organs that constantly strive to keep the body free of disease, which almost certainly includes keeping cancerous cells in check.

Scientists have known for years that the immune system plays a key role in cancer prevention. There is ample evidence of this, not least from patients who are immune-suppressed in some way - they are more likely than other patients to develop cancer.

Many organizations have tried to develop anti-cancer treatments based on antibodies, with limited success, Jakobsen said. Part of the problem is that antibodies are not really designed to recognize cells. Immunocore has built a therapy around the second arm of the immune system, known as cellular immunity, where T-cells seek out and destroy invading pathogens.

"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. It has taken 20 years and from that point we are unique," Jakobsen says.

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