A study published in Nature Medicine shows that the experimental compound is significantly effective against the pancreas tumor in mice. The next step will be to use the technique to treat patients.
The pharmaceutical company Zymeworks is introducing an experimental drug that boosts the immune system’s ability to attack a dangerous pancreatic cancer in mice, according to a report published in Science Translational Medicine on Friday. The potential advantages of the drug include faster recovery and progression-free survival and possibly fewer side effects.
The compound, called Zymocytes+, stimulates the immune system to remove mutated pancreatic cancer cells and replace them with healthy ones, according to Zymeworks.
The drug is an alum-rich substance — a substance that cancer cells benefit from because it grows faster. Zymeworks spokesman Joshua Bralien told The Washington Post that Zymocytes+ removes the drug and encapsulates it in alum. In order to be effective, though, the vaccine would need to be administered twice a day.
In August, the company announced the successful synthesis of Zymocytes+, and the new drug underwent animal testing on mice this week. It produced benefits in mice with a pancreatic tumor that had not responded to standard immunotherapy treatments, according to the report.
Currently, there is a drug known as gemcitabine, which is a very effective treatment against pancreatic cancer, but it has a downside of not responding well to a high number of patients, Bralien said. It is also expensive, and the patient must be injected continuously.
In the new study, two groups of mice were treated with the Zymocytes+ vaccine compared with either gemcitabine or just saline. Zymocytes+ produced improved tumor cell survival and more rapid recovery from virus infection than gemcitabine alone, according to the report.
The medication will likely first be used in patients as a test run — the study didn’t include current or former patients. In addition, the treatment is not available in the United States yet. Zymeworks plans to bring it to the market later this year.
The idea to improve immunotherapy therapy has been pushed on a number of fronts. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is sponsoring a series of companies that aim to harness the immune system to treat cancer. Other companies have also entered the field, but Zymeworks is the first to see its product perform better than standard treatments.
In addition to improving the animal tests for Zymocytes+, Bralien told The Post, Zymeworks also tested the idea in human patients. They reached three groups who had not responded to pancreatic cancer immunotherapy treatments but received Zymocytes+ twice a day and saw a 71 percent survival rate for those treated with the vaccine.
According to Zymeworks, however, “it should be noted that this treatment performed as well as gemcitabine or gemcitabine/gemcitabine combination regimens and produced higher tumor regression rates for a subset of patients.”
Still, the results are promising and Bralien said Zymeworks plans to explore making the medication for commercial use.