Scientists trumpet preclinical success of combo immunotherapy against brain cancer

MRI image of glioblastoma--Courtesy of NIH

Early signs of successful new cancer immunotherapy strategies have captured widespread attention this year. Now an investigative team at the University of Zurich says it has nailed down some clear proof-of-principle evidence in animal studies that interleukin-12 used in a combo immunotherapy approach offers a promising new avenue of research in tackling lethal cases of brain cancer. And the scientists involved are urging a quick shift to human studies to further explore its potential.

The first step involved animal models where glioblastoma had reached an advanced, terminal stage. The scientists, led by Burkhard Becher, used interleukin-12 to stimulate an immune response against the brain tumors. Adding a CTLA-4 blocker--evidently Yervoy (ipilimumab), which inhibits a protein on the surface of T cells that prevents an immune assault--pushed up tumor rejection rates to 80% of the animals being tested.

"I have rarely seen such convincing data in preclinical glioma treatment," says Michael Weller, neurooncologist and director of the Clinic for Neurology at the University Hospital Zurich. "That's why this development should be tested as soon as possible in clinical trials."

Becher, Weller's colleague at the university, applied for a patent on the IL-12/Yervoy combo back in 2011.

Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) has been seeing some remarkable outcomes for a combination of Yervoy with its PD-1 therapy nivolumab in treating melanoma. And the results, along with stellar data for Merck's ($MRK) MK-3475 and Roche's ($RHHBY) PD-L1 immunotherapy, have swung a bright spotlight to new immunotherapy approaches to cancer which promise to significantly improve patient survival rates.

These Zurich investigators clearly feel they have a prospect that Big Pharma should be paying attention to. And while new cancer therapies often fizzle when tried in humans, their release on the glioblastoma animal studies could serve as a commercial pitch to some deep-pocketed players who are plunging into the field.

- here's the press release