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Philanthropy and the Future of Immunotherapy Research

March 21, 2013

As a concept, immunotherapy fascinates a lot of people: the idea that the immune system can destroy cancer cells anywhere in the body brings a great sense of empowerment about our health. I’ve seen the way this resonates with patients, and I’m so pleased that in the last ten years we’ve established hard evidence that patients with a strong immune response live longer. For a long time, this was something we wanted to believe, and now we actually have the proof. Two FDA-approved immunotherapies are now on the world market—one for melanoma, another for prostate cancer—and that’s an incredible milestone for our field, a first in history.

The personalized vaccine strategy I described earlier this week is even further ahead of the curve. The Deeley Research Centre is the only site in Canada doing this type of research, and I’m aware of only six other groups in the world pursuing this concept.

BC Cancer Foundation donors have supported immunotherapy research in many ways. For example, a Foundation investment of $50,000 several years ago allowed us to start collecting tumour and blood samples from ovarian cancer patients. This enabled us to apply for external research grants which to date total over $1,000,000. That’s 20-fold leveraging on our donor dollars! With grant funding, we’ve been able to prove that we can sequence these tumours, find mutations, and figure out which ones are recognized by the immune system.

To move forward with the clinical trial I’ve described, we will continue to rely on the generosity of BC Cancer Foundation donors. Surprisingly, unfortunately, paradoxically, there is very little grant funding available in Canada for clinical trials. Rather, most clinical trials are funded by pharmaceutical companies. Our personalized vaccine strategy has limited commercial value, because each vaccine will be manufactured for a single patient – not a very big market! Yet the cost of our vaccines will be in the same range as other cancer drugs. All this is to say, philanthropy will play a vitally important role to help us achieve proof of concept for this groundbreaking idea. We know that with good data and carefully conducted clinical trials, our progress will continue. I see this as an exceptionally good opportunity for donors who want to help us make “the rubber hit the road” by bringing an entirely new cancer treatment into the clinic.