Keep an Eye on These 3 Revolutionary Cancer Treatments in 2014
As 2013 comes to an end, it's time to revisit one of the top priorities in the health-care industry: treating cancer. In 2013, 1.7 million new cases of cancer were reported in the United States, making up a large percentage of the estimated 2.7 million cases worldwide. Sadly, total global cases of cancer are expected to surge to 21 million by 2030.
But cancer treatments have considerably improved over the past few years, and patients now have more treatment options than ever. Companies like Inovio Pharmaceuticals , Roche , ImmunoGen , and Gilead Sciences are at the forefront of bringing revolutionary oncology treatments to the market.
As we head into 2014, let's take a look back at three revolutionary new ways to treat cancer, and how they can substantially improve the lives of patients.
Immunotherapy: Training the immune system to recognize cancer cells
One of the main reasons cancer cells proliferate is because the immune system has trouble locating them among healthy cells. Chemotherapy, the traditional method of treating cancer, has a severe drawback: It kills both cancerous and healthy cells, causing weakness, gastrointestinal problems, and hair loss.
That's where a new method of targeting cancer cells, known as immunotherapy, comes in.
Inovio, a development-stage biotech that is partnered with Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, is creating therapeutic cancer vaccines that can "train" a patient's immune system to recognize cancer cells as foreign objects and destroy them.
Inovio accomplishes this through the use of two technologies: electroporation, which delivers the vaccine into the patient's body through brief electrical pulses, and synthetic DNA, which makes the vaccine slightly different from native human proteins with the intention of triggering an immune response.
Heading into 2014, Inovio has three main cancer vaccines investors should keep an eye on:
Cervical, head and neck cancers
Breast and lung cancers
Although all three vaccines are still in the very early stages of development, Roche's vote of confidence, which also extends to Inovio's hepatitis B vaccine, suggests Inovio's technology shows considerable promise.
Antibody-drug conjugates: Cancer smart bombs
Speaking of Roche, the oncology giant also markets one of two market approved antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs), which are often nicknamed "cancer smart bombs."
ADCs are modified versions of monoclonal, or lab-created, antibodies, which are injected with cancer-killing chemotoxins. Monoclonal antibodies can be programmed to target certain mutations or overexpressions of growth hormones.
Roche's Herceptin, one of the most well-known monoclonal antibodies, seeks out HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) positive breast-cancer cells. HER2+ cancer cells, which account for 15% to 25% of all breast-cancer cases, are particularly aggressive since they send out more growth signals than other cells. Herceptin is specifically designed to locate that overexpression. When it locates the cell, it binds to it, blocking out the growth signals, and flags it for the immune system to recognize and destroy.
Roche's partner, ImmunoGen, turned Herceptin into an ADC known as Kadcyla. Kadcyla is an version of Herceptin "armed" with chemotoxin, which it injects into a cancer cell with ImmunoGen's proprietary linking technology.
In other words, Kadcyla "triple kills" the cancer cell -- by blocking growth signals, alerting the immune system, and injecting toxins -- while sparing the healthy cells nearby.
Therefore, the precision strikes that ADCs can carry out could eventually render chemotherapy obsolete. To date, however, only two ADCs have been approved: Kadcyla, which is approved in the U.S. and Europe, and Seattle Genetics' Adcetris, which is approved in the U.S. and Europe for two kinds of lymphoma.
Shutting down signalling pathways
Last but not least, investors should keep an eye on treatments targeting signalling pathways. In the human body, there are certain pathways that regulate cell death. Cancer cells often exploit defective signalling pathways to continue spreading.
One signalling pathway which is being explored is the PI3K/AKT/mTOR pathway. If the pathway becomes defective, fewer cells die, which helps cancer cells proliferate. Inhibiting this signaling pathway is believed to be the key to developing better treatments for blood disorders, breast cancer, and non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC).
Of these PI3K inhibitors, the most prolific is Gilead Sciences' idelalisib, a treatment for two blood cancers -- chronic lymphocytic lymphoma (CLL) and indolent non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (iNHL). In September, Gilead submitted a new drug application for idelalisib as a potential treatment of iNHL.
Infinity Pharmaceuticals is also working on IPI-145, a similar PI3K inhibitor for CLL, iNHL, and small lymphocytic lymphoma (SLL). But Infinity is far behind Gilead and is still enrolling patients for a phase 2 study.
Meanwhile, Pfizer has been testing a dual PI3K/mTOR pathway inhibitor for endometrial cancer, and has completed a study of another PI3K inhibitor for a wide variety of cancerous tumors. Novartis, Roche, AstraZeneca, Merck, and Sanofi are also working on similar treatments.
The Foolish takeaway
In closing, these new treatments -- immunotherapy, ADCs, and signaling pathway inhibitors -- could represent the future of oncology. While many of these treatments haven't been approved yet, they could significantly improve the lives of cancer patients by eliminating chemotherapy or wiping out cancer cells altogether.
Another company to keep an eye on
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The article Keep an Eye on These 3 Revolutionary Cancer Treatments in 2014 originally appeared on Fool.com.Follow @leokornsun. Fool contributor Leo Sun has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Gilead Sciences and ImmunoGen. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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