By Peter Sandor, SVP, Primary Focus Lead Immuno-oncology at Astellas Pharma Inc.
The field of immuno-oncology continues to advance at lightning pace. Our understanding of cancer biology, genetics, novel targets, approaches, and modalities grows exponentially every day in this highly complex and fast-moving space. However, despite recent advances, approximately 80% of patients still do not respond, or become resistant, to currently available immuno-oncology treatments.1
Across the cancer community there is growing recognition that, to bring new, potentially life-changing therapies to patients with few, or no options, we must reconsider traditional approaches and seek innovation in sometimes unexpected places. In practice this can mean shifting our mindsets and ways of working to embrace agile practices and new levels of knowledge sharing – both within and between organizations – to ensure we are best placed to deliver meaningful value to patients.
New Challenges, New Innovation Models
For decades, the foundations of cancer treatment have been surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. However, in recent years, immunologic approaches, especially cancer cell therapies, have generated considerable excitement among researchers and oncologists due to their ability to stimulate the immune system and target difficult to treat cancers.
Those of us striving to advance cancer treatment are aware that we must solve several longstanding challenges to bring these innovations to patients. This includes overcoming tumor microenvironment dependent treatment resistance, the need for specialist centers to engineer, store, and deliver the individualized nature of traditional cell-based approaches, and access challenges for patients who do not live near these centers.
Overcoming these hurdles can mean looking to other fields of research for inspiration to spark an idea that could enhance the value cell-based approaches could deliver for patients. A good example of this lies in Astellas’ journey to establishing our Center of Excellence for Cancer Cell Therapy, which has adopted innovative technologies from fields that are not specifically oncology focused. It started in 2016 when we acquired Ocata Therapeutics for its unique ability to create fully differentiated tissue cells from pluripotent stem cells. This led to the creation of the Astellas Institute for Regenerative Medicine and, subsequently, Astellas acquired Universal Cells, adding a proprietary technology for potentially overcoming the risk of the body rejecting cell therapies. Through the flexibility of our R&D approach, applying learnings from cell therapy development outside the ‘traditional oncology field’, we were able to identify potential novel applications in oncology.
Fast forward to today, the Center of Excellence is now driving our efforts to develop a cancer cell therapy platform that can be easily tailored to the needs of individual patients and adapted to multiple disease targets.
What’s Next for Cancer Cell Therapies?
For some in the field, the answer to this question lies in the concept of a ‘convertible approach,’ or an allogeneic, ‘off-the-shelf’ cell therapy platform, which could enable us to modulate treatment more frequently, to fuel a stronger immune response, potentially improve clinical outcomes and eliminate some of the toxicities that we see today with approved CAR-T approaches. Combining these approaches creates even greater opportunity to improve outcomes and patient access.
If we get this right, we will be able to address some of the limitations of traditional CAR immunotherapies – delivering greater speed, flexibility, and overcoming the hurdles of engineering treatment from a patient’s own cells.
But developing novel cancer cell therapies that combine entirely new technologies is no easy task – challenges are both more difficult to predict and more complex to solve. We must work with greater agility, speed, and, most importantly, collaboration. That’s why our approach to partnership must focus on further expanding our existing knowledge and capabilities and filling gaps in our expertise.
Partnerships Inspiring New Ways of Working
Advancements in the field have created a highly fruitful scientific environment in which cell therapy research is flourishing. Working with and learning from others in the industry is critical to enable us to move as quickly as the science is evolving.
Partnering with unique and innovative players in the field not only brings benefits from a pipeline perspective but in our ways of working too. Pharma must create an agile, ‘biotech-like’ working model, learning how we can combine the best elements from larger, global organizations with those of biotechs, and vice versa, to solve the problems faced by the cancer community together.
At Astellas, we have established a tailored, specialist cancer cell therapy team that champions a nimble and agile approach to collaboration – moving away from traditional hierarchical and linear ways of working to an iterative process, applying learnings in short cycles to solve problems faster and better anticipate and minimize risks. Empowering a dedicated team in this way enables rapid cross-functional working, ‘connecting the dots’ to ensure the right teams have the right insights and knowledge from the right subject matter experts at the right time. The team are also supported by functional subject matter experts to share expertise to inform decision making and advance projects when needed.
Through working in this way, we hope to maximize the effective use of our internal and external capabilities and expertise, with an aim to move our viewpoint beyond single assets or one-off collaborations and drive the adoption of knowledge and technologies from across our partnerships and deals.
Breaking Down Walls
We’ve come so far in cancer research – recent advances have been life-changing for many patients, however, we have much more to do for the patients still waiting.
Breakthroughs come from having the right technology, capabilities, and highly skilled individuals in place and working together regardless of the ‘walls’ they work within. Convergence of technologies and biology knowledge are critical for success, similarly important is nurturing the right environment for innovation and talent development. Astellas is one of the leading companies that brought these elements together: Establishing a research strategy that is based on modality platforms while also creating an innovative culture to help turn ideas into breakthrough science.
For those of us in the industry chasing first-of-their-kind treatments, we must be brave, embrace risk, and pursue partnerships to keep pace with the speed of innovation, mapping a path where others are yet to go. By adopting this new mindset and supporting one another on our shared journey, we will continue to advance a new era of cancer treatment for patients.