For nearly a decade, Dr. Cong Li, Dr. Lingming Liang, and Ms. Fei Lee have worked together at Amgen’s research laboratories in San Francisco to develop a new generation of potential therapies for prostate cancer. It has been a race against time. The disease kills thousands of patients every year and remains a leading cause of cancer-related death among men, second only to lung cancer.1
The hard work and perseverance of these scientists is paying dividends in Amgen’s quest to bring transformative medicines to people battling the hardest-to-treat cancers. The seemingly endless series of tests and experiments generating reams of data led Amgen to begin clinical trials treating patients’ aggressive forms of prostate cancer with new types of T-cell engagers, a growing field of immuno-oncology exploring how to harness T cells in the human immune system to target cancerous tumors.
Cancer cells use sophisticated mechanisms to hide from the body’s natural defenses against disease. T-cell engagers are designed to overcome those mechanisms by simultaneously binding to cancer cells and T cells in the patient’s immune system, redirecting those same T cells to hopefully attack and kill tumors. Amgen is now pursuing more than a dozen new targets across a broad range of cancers. Four different T-cell engagers are in prostate cancer trials,2 and researchers are investigating potential combination therapies.
From bench to bedside
As a scientist at Amgen, Dr. Li worked on the team that first explored T-cell engagers designed to target STEAP1, a protein found in abundance on the surface of cancer cells in patients with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer (mCRPC). Dr. Li remembers the day she and her team learned that the molecule they developed would be used in clinical trials to hopefully treat patients in urgent need of new therapies. A Phase 1 study is still ongoing.
“Once prostate cancer metastasizes, patients have few effective treatment options,” she stated. “This is what keeps me coming to work every day.”
The research by Amgen’s female scientists plays a key role in driving the innovation built into the company’s DNA. Studies show that diversity in research labs increases productivity, problem-solving, and innovation.3 Dr. Li and other female researchers’ significant contribution to the development of new treatments for a cancer that primarily impacts men illustrates the growing role of women in medical research.
The dedication of these women to bringing transformative cancer treatments to patients with the highest unmet needs transcends gender roles.
“The work we do here is so meaningful,” Dr. Li stated. “Cancer is a devastating disease. I work with a devoted group of first-class scientists, and together, I believe we can have a real impact.”
Dr. Liang also worked with Dr. Li on the STEAP1 project, the latest accomplishment in a 25-year career in cancer research.
“I have worked with the same team for many years, and we are all friends, and we all care about the work, which is amazing,” she stated. “I have been at Amgen for a long time, and a big part of that decision was just wanting to stick with the science.”
Discovering new treatments and revolutionizing care
New treatments for aggressive forms of prostate cancer are badly needed. Discovered early, the disease is highly treatable; however, the disease is fast-growing, and once it spreads to other parts of the body, survival rates plunge.4
The development of immunotherapies has revolutionized the cancer treatment landscape. The exploration of new targets and novel technology platforms is growing exponentially, fueled in no small part by Amgen’s ambitious focus on targeted cancer therapies. The company isn’t afraid to pursue the toughest cancers and explore pathways where few others dare to venture, transforming care with groundbreaking therapies for “undruggable” targets. Knowing the stakes for patients and their families keeps Amgen’s scientists focused on the next frontier.
Ms. Lee and her colleagues spent many years exploring another viable target for T-cell engager therapy in prostate cancer — delta-like ligand 3, also known as DLL3, a protein that is excessively and aberrantly expressed by neuroendocrine cancer cells. Patients with neuroendocrine prostate cancer, which is rare and often deadly, are now being treated with an investigational T-cell engager targeting DLL3 in an ongoing Phase 1b clinical trial.
“Whatever we do in the laboratory — even though it’s early-stage science — is about helping the patient,” said Ms. Lee. “Whether it’s looking for drug targets that can offer improved benefit/risk profiles or more convenient dosing, we are always thinking about the patient.”
An impact that will last a lifetime
The work these three women are doing, alongside their dedicated teams, is making an impact on important research at Amgen where scientists continue to explore new targets, new technologies, and new indications, pioneering research at the earliest stages to accelerate the development of these transformative medicines.
As Ms. Lee puts it, “We are always learning something new, and that is what keeps motivating me.”
To learn more about Amgen’s work with T-cell engagers and the company’s pursuit of novel targets in difficult-to-treat prostate cancers, visit AmgenOncology.com.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. United States Cancer Statistics: Data Visualizations. https://gis.cdc.gov/Cancer/
2. Amgen Pipeline. www.amgenpipeline.com. Accessed August 20, 2022.
3. Hong L, et al. Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004;101(46):16385-16389.
4. Harvard School of Public Health. The prostate cancer predicament. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/