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8 Biotech Companies Rethinking Immunotherapy for Brain Tumors


Growing evidence indicates that the field of cancer immunotherapy is coming of age. Here, a look at selective companies that are advancing immunotherapy approaches to brain tumors.

As highlighted in our prior articles, growing evidence indicates that the field of cancer immunotherapy, broadly defined as including passive immunization, active immunization, and immunostimulation, is coming of age. More than 40 unique active cancer immunotherapies are currently being tested in over 60 clinical trials, with nearly a dozen readouts from randomized Phase 2 or Phase 3 trials expected during the next 12 months.

Immunotherapy for cancers of the central nervous system [CNS], however, continues to be met with skepticism. Amongst the reasons for such incredulity are concerns that the nervous system may be immunologically privileged and the presence of the blood-brain barrier, which only allows entry of select immune cells from the peripheral blood into the brain. However, all of these premises have now been substantially discounted and tumors in the CNS should not be considered "off-limits" to immunotherapy.

In addition, recent observations of how the CNS system behaves and interacts with the immune system have shed some light into the potential role of immunotherapy in the treatment of brain cancer. Consider the following facts:
  • People with impaired immune systems have an increased risk of developing CNS lymphomas, suggesting that the immune system has a role in the manifestation of tumors in these patients. People with compromised immune systems include organ transplantation patients taking immunosuppressive drugs, HIV patients, and cancer patients being treated with chemotherapy, which can weaken immune functionality.
  • Bridget McCarthy, Ph.D. of the University of Illinois at Chicago found that patients with gliomas were significantly less likely to report having any type of allergy. In fact, patients who had more types of allergies, such as seasonal, medication, pet, or food allergies, had up to a 64% reduction in risk of developing glioma. This suggests a relationship between immunological activity and potential protection from the development of CNS tumors.
  • Neurologists and neurosurgeons provide anecdotal reports that glioma patients who experience postoperative infections near the tumor bed seem to do better than the average patient similar to the observations made over a century ago by Coley. This suggests that exogenous factors, such as infections, may result in the activation of the immune system and improve the odds of combating CNS tumors.

Collectively, these observations suggest that proper activation of the immune system in patients with CNS tumors could be beneficial. Accordingly, we sought to review select companies advancing immunotherapy approaches for brain tumors [see Table 1].

Table 1. Eight Companies With Immunotherapy Approaches for Brain Tumors

About Glioma

Glioma is the most common form of primary brain tumors. They are solid tumors that arise from glial cells, which help support the function of the neurons. Glial cells include astrocytes, oligodendrocytes and ependymal cells. The overgrowth of abnormal glial cells may begin in the brain or spinal cord tissues.

Gliomas can be divided into two categories: low-grade, which are not benign but have a better prognosis, or high-grade, which are malignant and often cause death within months, despite surgery or treatment with chemotherapy or radiation, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Glioblastoma multiforme [GBM], a high-grade glioma, is the most common and aggressive primary brain tumor. In contrast, tumors originating from astrocytes [astrocytoma] range from Grade 1, which are very benign, to Grade 4, which is the same as a glioblastoma.

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