CAR-T therapies have gained plenty of attention lately by promising to end cancer with a one-off treatment. But all that glitters is not gold; experts remind us it is important to be critical about the immuno-oncology hype.

Immuno-oncology has become all the rage lately, and the hype has led to some major investments, acquisitionsdeals and partnerships. It seems that the label “immuno-oncology” is sufficient to increase the value of the product. But Dr. Philip Greenberg, cofounder of Juno Therapeutics, a big Biotech developing CAR-T therapies, has called attention to the many challenges this field faces.

The first attempts to stimulate T-cells to attack tumors got the attention of big Pharma like Novartis, Kite Pharma and Juno Therapeutics. These companies are now advancing their programs in CAR-T, the breakthrough therapy that everyone’s after. In this treatment, the patient’s T-cells are engineered in vitro, rewired to attack a specific tumor antigen and then reintroduced in the patient (for more details, check out our review!).

Figure 1. CAR-T antigen in immuno-onology therapies

Figure 1. Engineered CAR-T cells express a Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) that recognizes a specific tumor antigen

But despite the promising initial results, most patients with cancer have shown relapses and no long-term improvement. In addition, the treatment can have very severe side-effects that not all patients will be able to withstand in their weakened state.

One of them is the cytokine release syndrome; when T-cells attack a tumor, they secrete such high amounts of inflammatory cytokines that the whole body reacts with intense fever, nausea, fatigue and swelling.

Another major complication is neurotoxicity, which manifests as hallucinations, memory loss and brain swelling. These are in fact the symptoms that presented the three patients that died in Juno’s Phase II trials earlier this year. But in spite of the current risks of the technology, Novartis and Kite Pharma are racing to be the first to gain FDA approval for their CAR-T therapies, with Juno at their heels.

The difficulty of treating tumors mainly relies on their ability to rapidly mutate and acquire drug-resistance, hide from the immune system, suppress the immune response and even fight back. And they don’t make an exception with CAR-T. In some cases, after a first attack from the engineered T-cells, tumors are able to eliminate the target antigen.

Figure 2. Immuno-oncology CAR-T therapies rely in the recognition of specific surface antigens

Figure 2. CAR-T therapies rely in identifying a specific tumor antigen. But cancer cells can mutate and quickly change their surface antigens to evade the immune response.

The huge patient variability is also a major issue that is not yet properly addressed. Recently, a Nature article highlighted how successful outcomes in precision oncology are usually over-represented in the media against the thousands of cases where the technology hasn’t proven effective.

We don’t mean to be pessimistic, but rather realistic. By being down to earth and discerning which approaches work from which don’t, scientists will be able to accelerate the development of successful immuno-oncology strategies.

On the bright side, some treatments have been successful in treating a broad range of patients; in Germany, a CAR-T study recently showed remission rates of up to 94% in blood cancers. And many other companies are already working in circumventing the current limitations of immuno-oncology so that they can reach more patients.

Alternatives in immuno-oncology

Figure 3. Don’t despair, there’s plenty of alternatives in immuno-oncology to keep fighting against cancer.

For example, researchers from the Dutch ISA Pharmaceuticals recently highlighted that successful immunotherapies specifically target the immunosuppressive mechanisms of tumors. This can be achieved by combining the treatment with chemotherapy or checkpoint blocking.

Celyad, in Belgium, is developing a unique CAR-T therapy directed to a target that is involved in the modulation of the tumor microenvironment and present in 80% of cancer types (for more info, check our interview with Georges Rawadi, its VP Business Development).

Stimunity, in Paris, focuses in the 70-80% of patients that are under the risk of CAR-T’s severe side effects due to their weak immune systems. To address the problem, this company targets an immune response with a lower inflammatory profile.

The French Cellectis became famous last year when its CAR-T therapy saved a 1-year old girl from leukemia. Cellectis’ approach to make CAR-T safer is based in the implementation of a switch control system; CAR-T cells are inactive by default and only get activated when rapamycin is added. In June this year, the first patient was treated in Phase I trials with its candidate drug UCART19.

Finally, although CAR-T therapies are currently dominating the immuno-oncology field, some companies are exploring alternatives. That is the case of Vaximm, which is developing a treatment that uses bacteria to deliver tumor-specific antigens.

Président Directeur général de Cellectis

André Choulika, Cellectis’ CEO

Our conclusion is pretty much summed up in Cellectis’ CEO words:

I’m just trying to be realistic, CAR-T is not the miracle cure for cancer.

Meaning that there is still a lot of work to be done until this therapy can be safe and effective for the majority of patients. In addition, CAR-T therapies also face a big challenge in terms of marketing and sales.

A source we talked to yesterday mentioned that the estimated price of these treatments rounds the €0.5M-1M range. This will make it difficult for companies to get reimbursements, though the high incidence of cancer may account for that. The results from Kite Pharma and Novartis will soon set a benchmark for other companies if they do manage to launch their products early next year.

Featured image credit: Lightspring/
Figure 1 credit: Juno Therapeutics
Figure 2 credit: Sciencepics/
Figure 3 credit: Robert Kneschke/

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  • A

    CAR-T has been the miracle cure for my husband with refractory Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He went into hospital in June as a dying man. He left three weeks later cancer free. Today he feels well, works and even plays soccer! Yes, CAR-T is not a fix for all. Yes, my husband might relapse.. But it sure beats death! Doesn’t it? The treatment was far from a walk in the park! He had CRS and neurotoxicity. It was hell. We knew of the three that died on the Juno trial, but did not let that phase us. My husband had no other treatment options left – it was CAR-T or a slow death with some form of palliative treatment. What choice would you make? It really is a no brainier! CAR-T is definitely all the hype makes it out to be! So are checkpoint blockades. These treatments are saving and extending many lives. They incredibly smart treatments that will most definitely change the face of cancer treatments, once we get it right. There so much work to do – but we are on the right track with Immuno Oncology! I’m not sure if you’ve had to face the possibility of dying at a young age, or the possibility of your spouse or child dying? I’m not sure if you know how much physical pain patients with uncontrolled spending cancer experience – but I can tell you it’s not pretty. I can tell you that from where people like us stand, your article is way off thr mark. In order to make great advances in cancer treatments, or treatments for any disease, we must be investing our minds and money into trials like these. Change is slow and it will take time for Immuno Oncology to provide real, durable cures for all. But the revolutionary nature of these treatments should not be taken lightly. If enough people invest in the right places, treatments like CAR-T and checkpoint blockades will change the face of how we treat cancer in the future. It will keep saving lives and hopefully, bring us closer to a very real cure. I may have missed it, but I don’t think you provided a better alternative? I’d probably replace the majority of your articles content with a simple statement “one step for man, a giant leap for mankind”. I also suggest you watch the three part documentary series “Cancer, the emperor of all maladies” – it provides a good account of the development of cancer treatments and our understanding of the disease itself. Sincerely, from the wife of a man who’s life was saved by CAR-T.

    • Hi A, it’s amazing to hear that your husband is better now! Thanks for sharing your story, the news can often dehumanize medical treatments. However, I think you missed the point of the article. I did not say this is not a good therapy, it is actually a great solution! But it’s important to know what things can be improved so that it can be safer and reach more people. And it’s also essential for the patients to know this if they want to make an informed decision. I did provide the names of a few alternative companies who are developing improved versions of the CAR-T technology, which I hope will be useful for those who want to enroll in a trial but may be under risk because of their condition.

  • Geo

    Someone aught to take a look at Inovio’s approach and see the differences.

    • Hi Geo, thanks for taking the time to comment – Inovio is no doubt an interesting company, but as a site focused on European biotech, we don’t cover US-based companies like Inovio.