Immunotherapy has been a boon to cancer patients since its remarkable stories of tumors melting away first startled the field several years ago. But not all cancers respond to immune-activating drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors that take the brakes off immune cells so they can fight cancer. And even among those types of cancer that do recede, not all patients who have them are fortunate enough to do well.
“In lung cancer the response rate is still very low, about 40%,” said Dr. Limo Chen, an oncologist and scientist at MD Anderson Cancer Center. “That’s not good enough.”
Chen has made it his mission to understand why resistance to immunotherapy is so high.
His work has focused on the microenvironment surrounding lung cancer tumors. He previously found that when lung cancer cells transition to a state that allows them to grow and spread, they tamp down immune cells in the tumor’s microenvironment.
“CD38 is an older molecule discovered a decade ago,” Chen said. “I found a new function.”
“After that, unfortunately, I thought, ‘I need to find career related to this to find some way to treat cancer patients.”
Should anti-CD38 antibodies now in clinical development prove successful in fighting cancer, that will offer a solution not possible years ago in China.
When Chen was 13, his second-oldest brother was diagnosed with bone cancer. There were few treatment choices.
“After that, unfortunately, I thought, ‘I need to find career related to this to find some way to treat cancer patients,’” he said.
— Elizabeth Cooney