Immunotherapy is Here to Stay: Looking Back at this Year’s Breakthroughs

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

By: Arthur N. Brodsky, Ph.D.


This past year was a big one for immunotherapy—it was recognized as the ASCO Clinical Advance of the Year for the second year running—and for cancer patients. The constant pace of progress has been hard to follow at times, so to get you up to speed we’re closing out this amazing year with a recap of some of the most important things that happened in immunotherapy in 2017.

Overall, there were over a dozen cancer immunotherapy approvals by the FDA this year. These include an entirely new immunotherapy approach as well as those that will allow even more patients to receive and benefit from existing immunotherapies:

  • Two CAR T cell immunotherapies—which involve taking patients’ own immune cells and equipping them with superior cancer-targeting receptors—were approved for leukemia and lymphoma.
  • A checkpoint immunotherapy made history by becoming the first treatment of any type to be approved for patients with solid tumors that possess a certain characteristic—in this case, an unstable genome—no matter where the tumors are located.
  • Patients with advanced lung cancer and bladder cancer can receive checkpoint immunotherapy as a frontline option, meaning they can receive it right away without having to first undergo chemotherapy.
  • Patients with stomach, gastroesophageal, and liver cancer as well as non-Hodgkin lymphoma (including children with the disease) can now be treated with checkpoint immunotherapy.

Beyond these approvals, which will allow many more patients to receive immunotherapy, there were several other big announcements in the field that will help to improve immunotherapy further and should provide more hope for patients.

  • The first trials with personalized vaccines began and have already produced promising responses. In parallel, CRI’s Tumor Neoantigen Selection Alliance project has been seeking to optimize how these vaccine targets are selected.
  • CRI announced a collaboration with Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy to accelerate immuno-oncology research, through which we launched a clinical trial for patients with advanced pancreatic cancer.
  • In partnership with Fight Colorectal Cancer, CRI awarded Cynthia L. Sears, M.D., of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (below left), a grant to determine how the bacteria that reside within us—also known as the microbiome—influence immune responses and immunotherapy in colorectal cancer patients.
  • Dongeun ‘Dan’ Huh, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania (below right), received CRI’s inaugural Technology Impact Award to create a cancer-on-a-chip model that could significantly accelerate the development of effective immunotherapies for all cancers.
  • Through a technology innovation grant, Sage Bionetworks and the Institute for Systems Biology are creating the CRI iAtlas, which will serve as an innovative online database and web resource designed to help researchers navigate immunological data across multiple tumor types
  • In partnership with the Israel Cancer Research Fund, the Cancer Research Institute launched the Immunotherapy Promise Initiative to identify and fund the most promising cancer immunotherapy research being conducted in Israel.
  • CRI partnered with the Focused Ultrasound Foundation in an effort designed to develop promising approaches that combine focused ultrasound and immunotherapy strategies.
  • Annals of Oncology published the landmark Immuno-Oncology Landscape Analysis, a comprehensive report produced by the CRI Clinical Accelerator team and our chief medical officer, Aiman Shalabi.

In 2017, the Cancer Research Institute continued to serve as the leader in the nonprofit immunotherapy space, and we’re happy to report progress regarding some of our flagship initiatives:

  • We expanded our Immunotherapy Patient Summit series (below), which connects patients and caregivers with cancer experts to address their questions and concerns, to five cities. In addition to sharing their experiences with each other, patients can meet with clinical trial navigators who guide them through the process of finding an appropriate clinical trial.
  • We jointly hosted of the third International Cancer Immunotherapy Conference (CICON), the world’s premier conference devoted to cancer immunology and immunotherapy, and the first to be held in Europe.
  • We held the fifth annual Cancer Immunotherapy Month in June, which successfully spread awareness of immunotherapy to new audiences.

In 2018, we look forward to bringing you even more great news about advances in immunotherapy for patients. For “A Glance at the Year Ahead,” watch our upcoming webinar with Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Dr. Jedd Wolchok, director of CRI’s clinical research program.