Yale Cancer Center joins BMS’ II-ON immuno-oncology network

Roy S. Herbst, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center of Immuno-Oncology at Yale Cancer Center. (Image: Yale Cancer Center)

Bristol-Myers Squibb wants a bird’s-eye view of discoveries in cancer immunotherapy, and a few years ago launched an initiative to stay close to top academic centers working in the area. Now, it’s added Yale Cancer Center and leading lung cancer researcher Roy Herbst, M.D., Ph.D., to its list of participants.

The International Immuno-Oncology Network (II-ON) was set up in 2012 when Elliott Sigal, M.D., Ph.D., was BMS’ chief scientific officer. From the get-go it boasted a top-tier list of academic partners, including the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in the U.S., and several overseas institutions including the Institute of Cancer Research in the U.K. and France’s Institut Gustave Roussy.

Others have joined the peer-to-peer group in the interim—16 institutions and a network of more than 350 researchers at last count—and according to BMS the initiative has generated new data that has helped inform the development of new immuno-oncology drugs and produced some of the earliest findings on “a variety of biomarkers and target identification and validation.”

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It’s looking to the network to help bring forward a new generation of I-O drugs behind the current products, which include its PD-1 inhibitor Opdivo (nivolumab) and CTLA4 blocker Yervoy (ipilimumab).

Herbst is director of the Center of Immuno-Oncology at Yale Cancer Center, and has worked as a clinical investigator on a raft of drugs coming through the pipeline in recent years, including Merck & Co’s checkpoint inhibitor Keytruda (pembrolizumab). He said joining II-ON “gives us the chance to work more efficiently and collaboratively with BMS and the other II-ON academic centers to address scientific questions in I-O.”

BMS says the goals of the II-ON are threefold and include understanding mechanisms of resistance to immunotherapy, identifying patients who can benefit from them—which is particularly important as a sizable proportion of patients don’t respond to first-generation I-O drugs—and exploring new combination therapies.

Herbst is a renowned expert in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), and last month was lead author of a paper published in the journal Nature which concluded that despite “unprecedented” advances in this form of lung cancer with tyrosine kinase inhibitors and immunotherapy in the past two decades, overall cure and survival rates remain low, particularly in metastatic disease.

Novel immunotherapies addressing other components of the immune system will be critical to overcome these challenges, says Herbst and co-authors in the review article. And BMS has its own first-hand experience of the challenges of developing I-O drugs for NSCLC, as Opdivo failed to hit the market in a pivotal trial as a first-line treatment for this type of cancer.

“Translational medicine and the understanding of cancer biology are foundational to our oncology R&D program, which is why we’re invested in furthering our understanding of early I-O science through the II-ON,” said Nils Lonberg, head of oncology biology discovery at the drugmaker.

“By adding Yale Cancer Center to the network, we are strengthening our collective ability to address essential scientific questions and advance clinical discovery.”

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