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Cancer drug firms to cash in on $9bn immunotherapy market

Trials have shown that immunotherapy may revolutionise cancer treatment

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Firms are developing drugs that use the body's immune system to beat cancer

Cancer drug companies are set to unlock a $9bn market after a breakthrough with a pioneering new treatment - but sky-high costs could curb its availability.
Firms are developing new drugs based on immunotherapy, which works by stimulating the body’s natural defences to fight cancer cells.
Results of trials revealed earlier this month showed it may revolutionise treatment of melanoma skin cancer and lung cancer.
The market for the treatment in the US, Europe and Japan is expected to be worth nearly $9bn by 2022 against $1.1bn in 2012.
But oncologists believe the high cost of the drugs could restrict the number of patients able to benefit.
UK regulators have already rejected cancer treatments because they failed rules that no drug should cost more than £30,000 per extra year of a patient's life.
Senior health analyst at Edison Investment Research, Maxim Jacobs, said: “Insurers are likely going to be very selective on who they approve to receive therapy; US$300,000 per patient for combination therapy is simply a very big ticket."

Major milestone

The results of the trials, unveiled at an American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting at the end of May, were hailed as a “major milestone”.
They showed drugs that block the natural “checkpoints” of the immune system, or boost its resistance, can help it to destroy cancer cells.
Tests of a Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) (NYSE:BMY) drug known as nivolumab on lung cancer patients showed it could prolong life by 3.2 months more than chemotherapy. 
A separate trial on patients with advanced melanoma demonstrated that mixing nivolumab with another BMS drug, ipilimumab, was better at extending life than either drug on its own.
Scientists have not made as much progress in developing immunotherapy to treat other forms of the disease.
But the success with melanoma and lung cancer has highlighted its potential, researchers said.
Cancer Research UK (CRUK) senior science information officer Dr Alan Worsley said: “There’s now an ongoing effort to encourage immunotherapy researchers to use it to fight any cancer.”
Companies and consortia including BMS, Merck (NYSE:MRK), AstraZeneca (LON:AZN) and Roche (ROG:SIX) are developing immunotherapy drugs.
The firms and their products are set to dominate the market with an 85% share by 2022, according to health data group Decision Resources.
Decision’s senior analyst Khurram Nawaz said : “A plethora of immunotherapies are in development across a wide range of oncology indications, making this drug class one of the most exciting to watch.”

Side-effects

Edison's Jacobs warned that more work was needed to reduce potential side-effects of the treatments.
He said one trial showed an occurrence rate of side effects from using nivolumab of 5.1%, 13.2% for ipilimumab, but a much greater 55% when combining the two.
Some 29.4% of combination patients had to stop treatment due to the severity of “adverse events”.
UK-listed AstraZeneca is developing MEDI4736, an immunotherapy for treating non-small cell lung cancer and other cancers.
The group last year began a phase III study for MEDI4736, which blocks signals from the body’s immune system that help tumours to avoid detection.
Its executive vice-president of global medicine development, Briggs Morrison, said: “We believe MEDI4736, and immunotherapies more broadly, hold the potential to shape the future of cancer treatment.”
Other companies involved in cancer therapy in the UK include Oxford Biomedica (LON:OXB), which has manufacturing deals with Swiss drug giant Novartis for blood cancer treatments.
Another UK company, Adaptimmune, focuses on T-cell therapy, which targets and destroys cancerous cells by strengthening the body’s immune system.
Of the UK–listed groups, Silence Therapeutics (LON:SLN) is using gene therapy to switch off rogue cancer genes, an avenue also being explored by ValiRx (LON:VRX). E-therapeutics (LON:ETX) meanwhile has used its pharmacology technology to start trials for brain, pancreatic and hepatocellular cancers.
A leading City pharmaceutical analyst speaking on condition of anonymity said initial trials had targeted conditions such as melanoma because they were best suited to the technique. 
He said: “Over the next two to three years, we’ll see a lot of different combinations being trialled for things like blood, pancreatic and gastric cancer, but whether they’ll work is another matter.”
CRUK’s Worsley said there was still a lot of work to do to determine which treatments would work best, but the ASCO findings were encouraging.
He said. “Immunotherapy will almost certainly be a part of cancer treatment in the next 15 years."

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