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MedImmune scientists: The key to fighting cancer may be the body’s own immune system

MedImmune is moving quickly to develop and test molecules that could embolden a cancer patient’s immune system to more vigorously attack tumors.

The Gaithersburg-based research division of AstraZeneca is one of many life sciences companies that have identified the practice, called immunotherapy, as a promising new treatment for multiple types of cancer.

“It’s exciting, but there is still also a lot we don’t know,” said Bahija Jallal, MedImmune’s executive vice president. “For scientists, there is nothing better than that.”

MedImmune’s research efforts took a step forward last week when the company announced a partnership that will allow its molecules to be tested in patients at the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas.

Executives said the arrangement will allow MedImmune’s scientists to better identify the specific types of patients who are likely to show a positive response to one or more of its four cancer immunotherapy molecules.

“You can see what’s going on with that individual patient that’s being treated with your drug,” said Ed Bradley, head of MedImmune’s oncology innovative medicines unit. “You can see if they’re getting the response that you hope they have.”

The immune system naturally attacks cancer cells in the body, but cancer has a way of hijacking the triggers responsible for that response. Thus, a patient’s immune system is typically rendered ineffective at battling the cancer. Immunotherapy is the use of molecules to undo that process so that the immune system can respond to the cancer with full force. In other instances, molecules can also be used to magnify the immune system’s natural response.

“For the first time, we actually have the molecular tools to reverse the abnormalities to the immune system that are induced by the cancer,” Bradley said.

What’s more, initial trials suggest immunotherapy may be less taxing on the body than chemotherapy, radiation or other treatments, and it may prove more effective at reducing cancer recurrence, executives said.

The widespread use of immunotherapy is likely years away. Any new medicine requires extensive testing before it receives regulatory approval for use in the general population. That’s particularly true for treatments considered to be cutting edge.

“From my point of view we’re just at the start of all of it, of understanding which treatments affect which patients,” Jallal said. “The future is really bright in my opinion.”

Steven Overly is a national reporter covering federal technology and energy policy with a focus on Capitol Hill. He previously covered the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital.



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