2016 is turning into a year of many changes in science and medicine, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the field of cancer research.
In January, US President Obama announced a “moonshot” for cancer. “Let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all,” he said in his final State of the Union address, pledging to initiate a government-wide push to cure the disease as an analogy of the effort in the 1960s to send a man to the moon. The cancer moonshot is a $1B injection of cash focusing on new approaches.
While the announcement of the president’s mission may have been somewhat unexpected, radical advances in science do provide new hope.
Traditional approaches to the disease involve three main types of treatment for fighting cancer: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. But today, cancer treatments are becoming more powerful, less toxic, and increasingly individualized — with researchers enlisting the help of the immune system in the body’s fight against cancer, and the emergence of new clinical trials and therapies.
Here are some of today’s revolutionary technologies that are making a difference in beating cancer.
Think Positive: HIL Applied Medical’s Proton Therapy
Proton-beam therapy, a form of cancer radiotherapy that uses positively charged particles to kill tumor cells, is 2-6 times less damaging to healthy tissue than traditional treatment methods. That’s because the protons can be programmed to deposit their energy into the tumor itself; unlike photons, used in conventional radiation therapy, which pass through the body and deposit considerable energy before and after the tumor.
Though proton therapy can treat a greater variety of tumors than other methods, and despite the fact that it’s been around since the 1980s — it has not achieved widespread use due to its astronomical price ($30M-$50M) per treatment room. As a result, 95% of patients who are eligible for proton therapy don’t receive the treatment.
Enter HIL Applied Medical. HIL is an Israeli company that developed a patented, breakthrough technology, based on innovative nanoengineering, which makes proton therapy affordable. Using a new way of generating proton beams that bypasses the need for expensive particle accelerators, HIL’s solution enables the construction and maintenance of proton therapy facilities for radically less money, with a price tag of just $14M per treatment room.
HIL is addressing an industry with a $10 billion potential that is grossly underserved, and in need of a cost-effective solution. Today, there are only 53 proton therapy centers worldwide; by comparison, there are over 2,700 traditional radiotherapy centers in the US alone.
HIL’s strategic investors include Ion Beam Applications (IBA), the global leader in the proton therapy space. The company was co-founded by seasoned experimental physicists, Dr. Shmuel Eisenmann and Professor Arie Zigler, and its talented management team includes entrepreneur Sagi Brink-Danan, CEO.
Extreme Cold: IceSense3’s Cryoblation Procedure
In breast cancer, the most common type of tumors are fibroadenomas — which are benign, solid (not fluid-filled) masses that are most frequently found in young women in their twenties and thirties. In the US, more than approximately 750,000 women are treated annually for fibroadenomas, and within five years of the initial diagnosis, about 60-70% of women seek treatment.
IceSense3, developed by IceCure Medical, is an appealing, minimally invasive alternative to the standard treatment of open surgical excision. IceSense3 uses ultrasound imaging to guide a thin, hollow needle into the breast tumor. The system then uses extreme cold (cryo) to destroy or damage the tissue (ablation).
The cryoblation treatment requires only a local anesthetic and can be performed in 5 to 15 minutes in the comfort of the doctor’s office. In addition to being cosmetically superior to surgical removal, it is also less expensive and facilitates a return to normal activity immediately.
Beyond the treatment of fibroadenomas, IceCure Medical is committed to expanding the clinical experience with cryoblation, as a viable alternative to surgery for the treatment of some breast cancers. The company has enrolled patients in a landmark, multi-center ICE3 trial, where certain breast cancers will be cryoblated then followed, without surgery. ICE3 has the potential to completely ablate tumors of up to 1.5 cm.
Going for the Gold: Sarah Technology from NewPhase
NewPhase developed a technology that utilizes patented, gold-covered nanoparticles, called Sarah molecules, which find and destroy cancer cells while sparing normal cells. The innovative technology is named after Sarah Hof — the mother of Dr. Rafael Hof, who founded the start-up after watching his mother battle cancer.
The gold-covered Sarah molecules have two distinct characteristics: They attach to glucose, and they possess unique phase-change characteristics that enable them to retain heat over time.
During treatment, glucose-linked Sarah molecules are attracted to sugar-hungry cancer cells, which consume 28 times more glucose than normal cells. Sarah molecules penetrate and adhere to the membranes of the individual cancer cells.
Next, the entire body is exposed to non-iodizing radiation and the therapeutic material absorbs the radiation in large quantities, causing it to heat. The malignant cells, surrounded by large quantities of Sarah molecules, are exposed to a lethal thermal mass that causes their membranes to burst.
Sarah technology offers significant benefits over traditional cancer treatments. Pre-clinical trials have proven that it is nontoxic to normal cells and has no side effects compared to conventional chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatments. In addition, it is effective on certain blood-borne metastases and micro-metastases that cannot be diagnosed using current diagnostic equipment. There is no development of resistance so the treatment can be repeated, so that cancer can be transformed from a life-threatening illness into a manageable, chronic ailment.
Structured Data and Intelligence: Cloud-Based Solutions from Flatiron Health
Flatiron Health doesn’t have its own cure for cancer, but it knows how to document the deadly disease effectively in order to optimize care and improve the therapeutic results. With its sophisticated, cloud-based oncology software, the healthcare technology company connects cancer care providers on a common technology platform, fighting cancer with organized data. It enables cancer care providers to manage the entire treatment process within one system — dramatically improving treatment, and accelerating research.
The company was founded in 2012 by Nat Turner and Zach Weinberg, after they witnessed several family members and friends battle cancer. It currently supports over 2,000 providers across the United States, providing maximized workflow efficiency and enabling providers to leverage data in a meaningful way, and improving the way they care for patients and treat the disease.
Flatiron raised $190 MM in 2016 in Series C funding led by healthcare giant Roche — after raising $130M in 2014 in Series B funding led by Google Ventures. Google acquired the previous company founded by Turner and Weinberg, Invite Media, in 2010.
Harnessing the Immune System: Kite Pharma
Kite Pharma is a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company that developed autologous cell therapy (eACT), an individual approach to cancer treatment that harnesses the power of the patient’s own immune system to effectively recognize and eradicate tumors. The eACT process results in an expanded number of tumor-specific T cells, which circulate throughout the body to systematically target and kill cancer cells, including those that have metastasized.
The eACT technology is based on the fact that T cells are critical to the immune system’s ability to detect and kill cancer cells, but if tumor-specific T cells are deficient in number — or if they are unable to function property or to recognize cancer as foreign to the body — they are unable to kill cancer cells. That’s where eACT comes in, enhancing the patient’s immune system to target cancer cells.
With eACT, a patient’s white blood cells are collected, and T cells are isolated and activated. Then, using Kite Pharma technology, T cells are engineered with either a CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) or a TCR (T cell receptor) gene, depending on the type of cancer. Once the T cells grow and expand, the patient is infused with the engineered T cells.
Founded in 2009, Kite Pharma went public in June 2014. It is preparing for the potential launch of its lead candidate KTE-C19 for the treatment of refractory, aggressive non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2017.
From Cold to Gold: It’s a Race against the Clock to Save Lives
Complete removal of cancer without damage to the rest of the body — that is, achieving a cure with near-zero adverse effects — is the ideal goal of cancer treatment.
Traditional cancer treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, are known to cause severe side effects. In addition, cancers can develop resistance to certain therapeutics. For these reasons, cancer is an area of high unmet need.
With the reality of growing cancer rates, a host of innovative technological solutions — some already in clinical trials — represent our greatest hope.
Yes, perhaps it’s a moonshot. Then again, we’ve successfully reached the moon, and the challenge of curing cancer just might be the next significant leap for mankind.