In the early 2000s Berkeley scientist James Allison worked with a Princeton biotech company called Medarex to develop a radical new kind of cancer therapy. It was immunotherapy, and it revolutionized the treatment of cancer for some patients by training the body’s own immune system to attack tumors but leave healthy tissue alone. It has led to the development of a new class of drugs: “checkpoint inhibitors” that take the brakes off the immune system’s response to cancer.
Now Allison has won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine together with Japanese scientist Tasuku Honjo for their separate roles in developing immunotherapy. Allison made the key discoveries that led to the drug in the 1990s at Berkeley, where he tested his technique on mice. This research went against the conventional wisdom at the time, which was that the immune system could not be used to fight cancer because the body could not distinguish cancerous cells from healthy ones.
After his lab experiments showed that immunotherapy could work, Allison worked to ensure that humans and not just lab mice could benefit from the discovery. He worked with Medarex to develop the specific antibodies that could fight against cancer in humans. Medarex, founded in 1987 in an office on Nassau Street, was acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb for $2.4 billion in 2009. BMS went on to bring two immunotherapy drugs, Yerevoy and Opdivo, to market.
Today immunotherapy is used to prolong the lives of many cancer patients.
Don Drakeman, founder and longtime CEO of Medarex, spent much of his time working on genetically modified lab mice that have human immune systems. (U.S. 1, August 5, 2009.) But the lasting legacy of Medarex, and the reason it attracted the attention of pharma giants, was its work on immunotherapy for cancer.
“We ended up being pioneers in the area now called checkpoint inhibitors (which we used to call ‘releasing the immune system’s emergency brake’),” Drakeman wrote in an e-mail. “That work led to Yervoy (ipi) and Opdivo (Nivo), products that now get a lot of attention, but, at the time, there weren’t many believers.”
Nils Lonberg, a former Medarex executive who is now senior vice president at Bristol-Myers Squibb told NBC News that Allison created the “nail” while Medarex developed it into a “hammer” against cancer.
“Jim’s major concern was he was very impatient because he really wanted us to go very fast,” Lonberg said. “He was frustrated trying to deal with pharma companies but he was also rightly suspicious that we would drag things out.”
Yervoy was finally approved by the FDA in 2011, 15 years after Allison’s breakthrough discovery.
Immunotherapy has become a small industry of its own in the Route 1 corridor. Today multiple area biotech companies have taken up the idea of immunotherapy and are working on new ways to fight cancer. For example OncoSec (U.S. 1, September 5, 2018) on Main Street in Pennington, Sonnet BioTherapeutics at 100 Overlook Drive (U.S. 1, July 18, 2018) Advaxis on College Road East (U.S. 1, April 25, 2018); CytoSorbents, a Deer Park Drive based medical device manufacturer, is exploring how its blood purification technology might be used to combat the side effects of immunotherapy.
Together with other advances in fighting cancer, immunotherapy has contributed to the many small advances against cancer that the scientific community has made every year. Since 1990 the overall death rate from cancer has fallen 25 percent.