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ORLANDO, Fla. — Many cancer cells shroud themselves in a thicket of complex sugars called glycans that help them suppress immune cells seeking to kill them. But in most of cancer research, these glycans have been ignored because they’ve been exceedingly difficult to study. Stanford biochemist Carolyn Bertozzi had to invent a new field of chemistry, called bioorthogonal chemistry, just to image them — a discovery for which she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2022.

Now that work is fueling the creation of novel immunotherapy drugs through a biotech that Bertozzi helped co-found, Palleon Pharmaceuticals. At the American Association of Cancer Research annual meeting on Tuesday, researchers presented results from a Phase 1/2 clinical trial testing one of those agents, called E-602, showing preliminary signs of activity and safety. Although the trial doesn’t yet show whether E-602 will be effective as a cancer medicine, experts say the data are an encouraging sign that patients may soon see therapeutics born out of an entirely new field of science.


“We need new areas and new science,” said Roy Herbst, deputy director of the Yale Cancer Center, who did not work on the trial. “A lot of what you see at a meeting like this are similar things. You know, I don’t need another PD1 or PDL1 inhibitor. We need new mechanisms. And now we’re starting to check our tumors for glycans at Yale. It’s a very emerging area.”

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