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In 1980, TIME Magazine wrote about interferon as the “if” drug for cancer. Promising studies sparked widespread hope around the potential of the interferon to treat cancer, only if it could deliver meaningful long-term benefit, safety concerns could be addressed, and manufacturing could be scaled to the massive quantities needed to treat cancer populations. No small feat – yet dedicated scientists have steadily plugged away at refining this therapy to accomplish these goals and realize its full potential.

Through decades of progress and learnings, researchers have now matured and optimized the science behind interferons to apply this powerful mechanism of action to a wide range of cancers for which it may not previously have been an option. One global biopharmaceutical innovator, PharmaEssentia, has generated excitement around the use of interferons for myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs), a group of blood cancers originating from stem cell mutations in the bone marrow. These cancers have had limited therapeutic innovation, yet demand a treatment approach that can deliver long-term care.

Looking at interferons with a fresh perspective, PharmaEssentia applied its proprietary pegylation technology to redesign the treatment into a powerhouse new tool against MPNs. As a result of dedicated efforts over 20 years, the company is now transforming the treatment of polycythemia vera (PV), a type of MPN, and continues development of new hematology/oncology therapies based on this novel approach to interferons.

Here, leading minds from PharmaEssentia discuss what led to the interferon renaissance underway today, and how the power of the interferon is redefining cancer care.

What is the science behind interferons? What makes them an effective tool to treat certain cancers?

Dr. Lih-Ling Lin, Chief Scientific Officer: Interferons are naturally occurring substances that help the body’s immune system fight infection. They are one of the most recognized and well-studied therapies for a broad range of diseases, including hepatitis C and multiple sclerosis, and now, a group of blood cancers called MPNs.

In the 1980s, scientists discovered a way to replicate interferons in the lab to destroy cancer cells, which generated a lot of excitement. Yet, those early interferons created toxicities that made them too risky for all but the most advanced cancer cases. In the past few decades, however, researchers have discovered ways to administer interferons tolerably and effectively, and today we are unlocking the potential of interferon to treat a wide range of cancer types.

Tell us about the scientific breakthrough behind the interferon renaissance.

Dr. Lih-Ling Lin: In the 1990s, PharmaEssentia founder Dr. Ko-Chung Lin began working with interferon in the hopes of uncovering its full potential by balancing tolerability and efficacy to successfully treat certain cancers. Dr. Lin’s research laid the groundwork for PharmaEssentia’s pioneering technology, which uses the power of pegylation (or “extended release”) to extend the duration of the medicine and improve pharmacokinetic (PK) and pharmacodynamic (PD) properties. In other pegylated interferons the PEG moiety can attach at multiple sites along the interferon protein, creating several different structural variations of the protein each with their own pharmacologic, toxicologic, and immunogenic activity. PharmaEssentia’s unique pegylation technology involves a mono-pegylation design where the PEG moiety attaches to a specific site on the protein, resulting in a predominantly single-isomer with a longer half-life leading to less frequent dosing and potential for more favorable tolerability.

How does this “interferon renaissance” impact patients?

Dr. Raymond W. Urbanski, Head of Clinical Development and Medical Affairs: The traditional treatment approach for PV includes phlebotomy (a procedure to remove excess red blood cells), a relatively old form of non-selective chemotherapy called hydroxyurea, or eventually a JAK-2 inhibitor, indicated for patients who are resistant or intolerant to hydroxyurea. All of these treatments center around sign or symptom reduction rather than treating the disease itself and impacting disease progression, an aspect of the disease that we often hear causes patient anxiety and can cause additional burden on a patient’s quality of life. This is why many patients and clinicians welcome additional treatment options.

This has triggered a paradigm shift in how physicians and the community think about PV and the approach to treatment. We believe this is a powerful shift that could apply to many populations. The interferon renaissance we are seeing today – the true optimization of interferon – could represent a new approach for patients with cancers who have not had effective options.

What is on the horizon for your work with interferons?

Meredith Manning, President of the Americas: PharmaEssentia has already demonstrated that an interferon delivers efficacy and tolerability to treat patients with PV. We now aim to replicate this scientific success across all MPNs and other hematologic malignancies, while fostering a dialogue about raising treatment expectations among MPN physicians and advocates. We have several studies underway or planned – in PV, essential thrombocythemia and primary myelofibrosis – that we hope will spark new thinking about the treatment of MPNs and bring us one step closer to our goal of long-term disease control and perhaps, eventually, a cure.

For more on how PharmaEssentia is advancing MPN care, visit: