The Future of Cancer Immunotherapy After COVID-19

In 2020, nearly 2 million cases of cancer were diagnosed in the United States. More than 600,000 people died from the disease. 40% of us will be diagnosed with cancer at some point. Surprisingly, cancer rates are highest in the most developed countries.

Cancer is a present and very often tragic reality in many people’s lives, which is why recent developments in immunotherapy (IMT) have been so encouraging to researchers, clinicians, and patients alike.

The Promise of Immunotherapy

The primary challenge with chemotherapy is that it does significant damage to healthy cells in its quest to eradicate cancerous cells. IMT, on the other hand, can target the latter without destroying the former, resulting in fewer side effects and better results.

IMT operates by using the body’s immune system to combat cancer. Specific therapies include: 

  • immune checkpoint inhibitors (drugs that unleash the system’s full power)
  • t-cell transfer therapy (treatments that boost T-cells ability to fight specific cancer cells)
  • monoclonal antibodies (proteins used to “paint” targeted tumor cells to enhance the body’s immune response)
  • treatment vaccines (though different from those that prevent cancer, these vaccines boost the immune response)

Clinicians’ enthusiasm about the prospects of IMT has been high, with trials and lab studies showing impressive results in the treatment of a wide range of cancer types.

The Pandemic and Its Effect on Immunotherapy

At the end of 2019, advances in IMT for breast, pancreatic, prostate, and brain cancer offered bright hope for even further development in 2020. However, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly hampered progress for reasons both logistical and biochemical.

Logistically speaking, lockdowns put significant barriers between patients and diagnosis. Delays such as these have been shown to increase mortality rates by barring patients from the treatments that could have saved their lives. Moreover, these delays deprive IMT researchers of the precious data they need to continue development.

Biochemically, COVID-19 raised vexing questions about whether IMT made patients more susceptible to severe respiratory infection. Studies have not borne this risk out, and researchers are advising continued administration of appropriate IMT treatments.

The Prospects of Immunotherapy After COVID-19

With COVID-19 numbers waning and vaccinations on the rise, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Cancer patients have been able to leave their homes and resume their regular treatment regimen, which will undoubtedly lead to better outcomes across the board.

Shifting of habits in cancer care necessitated by the pandemic will continue to affect patients and providers alike. All will have to reckon with online care. Oncologists, specifically, will have to deal with lingering disputes over what constitutes “essential” vs. “non-essential” care, along with evolving guidelines on clinical trial eligibility.

Even so, the future of IMT development looks strong. Trials that had once been delayed on account of COVID can now resume. Clinicians and researchers can use the experience gained in these trials to press further ahead in developing successful treatments. Without COVID and the full weight of social distancing, results can once again be analyzed, models can be refined, and progress can be made in IMT.

Conclusion

IMT has provided a beacon of hope to vast swathes of cancer patients. As clinicians continue to deploy IMT and researchers refine the technology based on real-world results, we can expect to see continued growth in this promised medical field.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on healthcare in many ways. Thankfully, all signs indicate IMT will continue to forge ahead, and the companies doing innovative work in this space will be able to resume their important work.

See what a few of the innovators from our PRISM Emerging Index are doing to advance IMT:

OncoCyte (Nasdaq: OCX) is a small diagnostic firm focused on the development and commercialization of proprietary, laboratory-developed tests for the detection of cancer. The shares currently trade right at $4.90 a share with an approximate market capitalization of $440 million. The company recently announced it entered an agreement with MultiPlan Network, expanding patient access to its DetermaRx™ test that identifies early-stage lung cancer patients who are at high risk for cancer recurrence post-resection. Today OncoCyte announced it will present new data at the 2021 American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting, demonstrating potential for pan-cancer utility of DetermaIO™.

ZIOPHARM Oncology, Inc. (Nasdaq:ZIOP) is a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company focusing on discovering, acquiring, developing, and commercializing a portfolio of immuno-oncology therapies to treat patients with cancer. The shares currently trade right at $4.40 a share with an approximate market capitalization of $962 million. Ziopharm expects to begin enrolling patients in the phase 1/2 study of its TCR-T therapies in the second half of this year.

OncoSec Medical (Nasdaq:ONCS) focuses on developing cytokine-based intratumoral immunotherapies to stimulate the body’s immune system to target and attack cancer. The shares currently trade right at $6.00 a share with an approximate market capitalization of $215 million. The company recently announced publication in Clinical Cancer Research of data supporting the therapeutic potential of lead product candidate, TAVO™, in triple negative breast cancer.

Gamida Cell (Nasdaq: GMDA) develops cell therapies to cure blood cancers and serious blood diseases. The shares currently trade right at $8.90 a share with an approximate market capitalization of $530 million. Last month the Novartis (NYSE:NVS)-backed company came out with promising phase 3 efficacy and safety data for lead cell therapy candidate, omidubicel.

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About the Author

The Future of Cancer Immunotherapy After COVID-19

Kerry Corbit

Kerry Corbit is Investors Prism's Editor in Chief and Lead Broadcast Journalist and is based in New York, NY.