Why Continuum Life Sciences may create a monumental breakthrough in cancer treatment
When, twenty-five years ago, I started working on understanding how our immune system might be used to combat cancer, researchers and pharma companies – everyone! – had turned their back on what is known as immune therapy for cancer.
Well, almost everyone. A few scientists held on to the idea of using the immune system against cancer because of some rare observations that, if people in the field had really thought about them, should have made everyone sit up and take note. I have often made this point in conference talks, using the following example: Several decades ago, patients who had had a cancer but then apparently had been cancer-free for many years, occasionally were accepted as organ donors. This turned out to be a very unfortunate practice because, invariably, the new host who received the organ soon would be overcome by cancer. Examinations showed that in every case the cancer came from the donated organ. The new host was very badly equipped to fight the alien cancer because in order not to reject the new organ, they had received immune-suppressive treatment. The practice of using organs from ‘cured’ cancer patients was duly stopped, but the unfortunate practice enables two crucial conclusions about cancer and the immune system to be drawn.
The first and rather gloomy conclusion is that, even if a patient appears to be cancer-free for many, many years, it seems clear that the cancer can still silently, stealthily exist in the body, even if it can’t be detected. In fact, it may well be that it is impossible to eradicate cancer and, if an apparently cancer-free patient becomes immune-compromised, they may still succumb to their disease.
The second and vital conclusion is that the immune system clearly is capable of exercising long-term complete control over cancers. We know this because, in the donor who previously had cancer, that cancer was still present later, since it transferred with the donated organ. Why then can’t we make the immune system establish this control over cancer in all patients?
The reasons are, in some ways, quite simple. We don’t yet understand how the immune system can exercise control over cancer, and so we don’t know how to interfere in the massive majority of cancer patients in whom the immune system appears to be blind to the disease. And the reasons we don’t yet understand is that we have had neither the patients nor the scientific tools to investigate.
This is where Continuum Life Sciences comes into the picture and why the Company and its approach is unique.
It may sound surprising that we haven’t had the patients identified to investigate long-term control over cancer. However, the way cancer clinics work is that they follow patients for up to five years. Sadly, at that time-point after diagnosis, most patients will have succumbed to their disease. However, some will have survived but, at the five-year time point, the clinic lets the patients go and loses track of them. Therefore, long-term survivor cohorts are not identifiable through the hospital systems (five year survival and in good health being the criteria for ‘long-term survivors’). Continuum, through the initiative of Dr. James Hull, who himself is a long-term cancer survivor, is the first and only organisation to have solved this challenge through its public campaigns that have made long-term cancer survivors come forward. These ultra-rare patients are devoted to the Continuum cause and continually provide invaluable samples for the organisation’s research.
Approximately ten years ago, a small number of treatments based on directing the immune system against cancers began to show promise and we therefore now know a good deal more about the immunological mechanisms involved in targeting cancer. At the same time, the science and technologies available to analyse immune mechanisms have undergone a revolutionary development. Continuum has, over the last few years, made excellent use of these developments by placing research projects in world-class UK laboratories.
Investigating samples from long-term cancer survivors, these laboratories have identified novel and unexpected immune mechanisms that are only present in these rare types of patients. The implications are potentially enormous: If these mechanisms from long-term survivors can be understood and turned into drugs, it should be possible – in patients whose immune systems do not by themselves react powerfully enough – to induce control of the cancer. Thus, the hope is that we will be able to turn patients with progressive disease into long-term survivors.
Continuum is at the stage when research must be turned into treatments. This involves a huge amount of testing for efficacy and toxicity, drug manufacturing, and design of clinical trials. Therefore, Continuum is setting up its own Research and Development facility and recruiting a world-class team of experts in immune oncology to bring entirely new types of treatments to patients. In a few years’ time, the first novel drug candidates will be tested in patients, and I believe we will begin to see the immune mechanisms that keep a very few patients alive for the long term begin to benefit a vastly larger number of patients.
Bent K Jakobsen, CEO, PhD FMedSci, July 2021
For further information please contact Continuum on 0800 144 8488 or email Charlotte Lewis, firstname.lastname@example.org