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Experimental cancer cell therapies have nearly doubled in six months

A new report from the Cancer Research Institute highlights the U.S. and China as cell therapy leaders

by Ryan Cross
May 31, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 23


In just six months, the number of cancer cell therapies in development has almost doubled, according to a new report from the Cancer Research Institute (CRI).

Cancer cell therapies use immune cells to seek and destroy cancer. As of March 2018, about 750 cancer cell therapies were in development, CRI reports, up from the 400 tallied in September 2017 (Nat. Rev. Drug Discovery 2018, DOI: 10.1038/nrd.2018.74).

The sudden burst of excitement likely stems from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s approval of the first two CAR T-cell therapies last fall—Kymriah from Novartis and Yescarta from Gilead Sciences—as well as two multi-billion-dollar acquisitions of CAR-T companies.

The report also outlines China’s rush to become a major cell therapy player. The country has 203 cell therapies in development, second only to 344 in the U.S. Most of China’s therapies are copycats similar to Kymriah, Yescarta, or other CAR-T therapies in advanced development in the U.S. that target an antigen called CD19 to tackle rare blood cancers.

In fact, more than half of CAR-T therapies in development in China and the U.S. target CD19. But academics and companies are starting to expand their cancer hit lists. About 70 other targets are being tested in early-phase cell-therapy clinical trials, and another 40 are in preclinical development.

Many of these new antigen targets could be helpful for getting CAR-Ts to work on solid tumors. Sixteen ongoing clinical trials are combining cell therapies with commercial anti-PD-1 checkpoint inhibitors in hopes that the therapies will work better as a pair against more kinds of cancers (see page 28). And new cell therapies that use different immune cells, such as natural killer cells or tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes, are also becoming more common.

In addition to Kymriah and Yescarta, CRI’s list of approved cancer cell therapies includes two commercial drugs for liver cancer and leukemia that are not approved in the U.S.


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