Big Pharma takes an interest in cancer vaccines

For two decades, biotech companies have struggled to develop therapeutic cancer vaccines designed to treat the disease by stimulating the immune system to attack cancer cells without harming normal cells. This approach would be a major step forward for cancer treatment, as current therapies attack both diseased and healthy cells and can result in hair loss, vomiting and infection.

So far, the FDA has yet to approve a single therapeutic cancer vaccine. The issue is that the vaccines must do more than slow tumor growth – they must actually improve patient survival, which can take years to measure, requiring long Phase III trails. But a crop of late-stage cancer vaccines are showing a lot of promise and attracting the attention of large pharma and biotech companies. “There are possibilities here, and now the big companies are starting to be interested, but they haven't had the courage before because it has been too risky for them," noted Haakan Mellstedt, a professor in oncological biotherapy at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. Cancer treatment is a $50 billion annual market, and research firm Arrowhead Publishers says that if approved, cancer vaccines could grab $6 billion in annual sales by 2010. Analysts expect the cancer vaccine market will soar to $8 billion by 2012. Here’s a look at some of the late-stage drug candidates that could revolutionize the cancer treatment field:

  • Earlier this year, Sanovi-aventis bought the rights to TroVax from Oxford BioMedica for $720 million (in fact, it was one of the top 5 deals of the first half of 2007). TroVax is currently in Phase III for renal cancer, but the company is exploring its utility in a range of cancers including colorectal, lung, breast and prostate cancer.
  • Glaxo said it will be recruiting 2,000 patients for a Phase III trial of its lung-cancer vaccine MAGE-A3, making it the largest cancer vaccine study ever.
  • Also competing in the lung cancer market, Merck KGaA is recruiting patients for a Phase III study of Stimuvax, bought from Canada's Biomira in January. In the Phase II trial, patients taking Stimuvax lived an average of 30.6 months compared to an average of 13.3 months for patients receiving supportive care alone.
  • Genitope is developing MyVax for an incurable form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The company plans to wrap up a trial of the vaccine by the end of this year. The developer hoped to end the trial sooner, but last month an independent board recommended that the clinical trial continue.
  • Antigenics has reported positive data for Oncophage, a brain cancer treatment. Previously, Antigenics took a beating when Oncophage failed late-stage trials for skin and kidney cancer.

For more:
- read the Wall Street Journal article

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