Television shows like Star Trek once predicted a universe where devices could detect disease, and treatments could be delivered at the push of a button to reverse diseases once considered incurable.
We aren't quite there yet, but innovation is changing the field of healthcare in remarkable ways. Futuristic technologies like genetic engineering are becoming more mature; advances are made every day in our understanding of causes and cures for some of our most devastating healthcare problems.
Teaching the Body to Fight the Enemy Within
In healthcare, entrepreneurship is time-sensitive: today's innovation could save someone's life tomorrow. And within healthcare, there may be no field where technology innovation has more of an impact than the treatment of cancer.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States; in 2016 it's estimated that more than more than half a million Americans will lose their lives to the disease. Cancer develops when DNA becomes damaged, causing out of control cell growth. Because cancer cells are not recognized as foreign, the body's natural defense mechanisms do not kick in to inhibit their growth.
Traditional treatments sought to inhibit cancer's growth by using radiation or chemotherapy to kill off cancer cells. Unfortunately, these treatments didn't just damage the cancer cells, they also damaged surrounding healthy tissue, resulting in a host of side effects that further weakened patients.
Today, technology innovators seek to change how we treat cancer through therapies that alter immune responses at a cellular level, making them more effective at fighting cancer without involving non-cancerous cells. This therapy, called immunotherapy, "trains" the body to recognize cancer, strengthens its immune response and alters pathways that cancer cells use to spread around the body..
Not Too Risky for Startup Pharma
There is much at stake in the field of cancer treatment, yet fear of risk has hampered efforts to develop these new technologies until recently. Patients themselves are risk-averse, often rejecting promising clinical trials for a treatment regime with proven results.
Because of these challenges, big pharma companies limited their investments in development of advanced treatment options like immunotherapy unless there was a strong business case and low risk. Unfortunately, these therapies aren't without risk; some treatments such as T-cell therapy can stimulate potentially deadly reactions when administered systemically. Immunotherapies can also be expensive to develop and administer.
But these challenges haven't stopped smaller, more nimble healthcare technology innovators from developing more sophisticated, safer immunotherapy technologies to beat the disease. Their innovation is paying off: new research indicates that immunotherapy could produce "significant clinical response" in 70% of patients with multiple myeloma.
Immunotherapy: Hope for Advanced Cancers
One of the most promising innovations within immunotherapy is the use of genetically modified interleukins, or proteins, that signal the immune system to produce an inflammatory response that can destroy cancer.
One San Diego-based biotechnology startup, OncoSec, is developing an immunotherapy treatment based on this approach called ImmunoPulse. ImmunoPulse uses naturally occurring proteins, such as interleukin 12 (IL-12), to stimulate the immune system to recognize and attack cancerous cells.
Unlike systemically delivered immunotherapies that can produce serious side effects, ImmunoPulse IL-12 is proving to be generally well tolerated and safe across multiple treatment cycles in clinical trials. DNA-based IL-12 is administered directly into the tumor using an applicator that delivers quick electric pulses to increase the permeability of cell membranes. This produces a localized immune response and educates fighter immune cells to recognize and attack cancer throughout the body, without attacking healthy cells.
OncoSec is currently focused on meeting the needs of patients who currently do not respond to one class of breakthrough immunotherapies, called checkpoint inhibitors - specifically anti-PD-1 therapies. By combining ImmunoPulse IL-12 with anti-PD-1 therapies, the company believes it can increase the number of patients who respond to and can benefit from this type of treatment.
According to Punit Dhillon, President and CEO of OncoSec: "Now, our goal is to continue to move this combination approach forward in order to achieve more effective immunotherapy treatments without additional safety concerns for patients who may not have any other treatment options."
Companies like OncoSec are using innovative science that once existed only in fiction to save lives. Within 10 years, researchers believe immunotherapies like these could be used to treat up to 60% of cancers worldwide. Though Star Trek-style medicine may still be a long way off, cancer patients stand to benefit in the very near future from healthcare innovators' willingness to boldly go where no science has gone before.