Global R&D Is Advancing the Cancer Immunotherapy Field

21 May

By Shaoyu Chang, MD, MPH,  Senior Research Analyst, LSN

Shaoyu 10*10

The immuno-oncology field is seeing high-profile deals and increasing media attention.  We have therefore used the LSN company database to analyze a sample of biotech companies working in this field. Cancer immunotherapies harness the power of the immune system to target malignant cells. Unlike traditional approaches to cancer such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy, these emerging technologies hold the promise of precise therapeutic effects while leaving the rest of the body unharmed. These products’ clinical benefits are impressive, and so is their financial performance. In 2014 alone, cancer immunotherapy drugs have generated about $41.0 billion in the United States, accounting for nearly 50% of the overall oncology drug market (1).

With more than 30,000 company profiles, LSN’s company platform provides a bird’s eye view of the global early stage biotech and medtech R&D landscape. Our search in the LSN company platform yielded 522 unique companies that are currently developing at least one cancer immunotherapy product. About one-fifth (119) of them are publicly listed, while the rest are private or subsidiary companies. Cancer immunotherapy R&D has become a global phenomenon with the United States as the leader in terms of number of companies, followed by China, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada, as shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1, Source: LSN Company Database | Data as of May 20, 2015

There are three major categories of cancer immunotherapies: cytokines and immunomodulation agents; monoclonal antibodies; and cell-based therapies. We further analyzed our sample of the 522 companies, and the breakdown of their technologies is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2, Source: LSN Company Database | Data as of May 20, 2015


The original pioneers in cancer immunotherapy utilized cytokines such as interleukins and interferons to stimulate immune response against cancer. This is a broad-stroke approach that causes a response that’s often non-specific and therefore frequently leads to dangerous side effects. In recent years, newer, more sophisticated immune stimulation and modulation pathways have been explored, in an attempt to limit these side effects and increase efficacy.

In terms of commercialized products, monoclonal antibodies remain the mainstay of cancer immunotherapy. These biologic drugs can act either as carrier to deliver chemotherapy drugs to targeted sites, as inducer for an immune attack on a tumor, or as inhibitor of key biological pathways in cancer cells. Many major pharmaceutical companies are actively securing a strategic position in this field(2).

Cell-based therapies have attracted the most media attention with a number of highly visible public companies. In general terms, these technologies involve collecting immune cells, such as T cells or dendritic cells, from a patient with cancer. The harvested cells are reprogrammed through genetic engineering or peptide and adjuvant stimulation. Activated immune cells are equipped with the ability to recognize and kill cancer cells and are then reintroduced to the same patient to treat the disease. This approach is highly specific and has platform potential so long as appropriate tumor antigens are available.

Many of the above technologies can be referred to as ‘therapeutic vaccines’—induction or augmentation of immune responses against existing diseases. A significant minority of cancer immunotherapy companies are developing ‘prophylactic vaccines’ that aim to prevent cancers from developing in the first place. Their R&D efforts are concentrated in specific fields such as cervical cancer (HPV), liver cancer (hepatitis viruses), and gastric cancer (H. pylori). Many other cancer immunotherapy companies are exploring various areas including adjuvant technologies, tumor antigen discovery platforms, and nucleic acid-based vaccines.

Public awareness of cancer immunotherapy has increased as it enters regular clinical practice and mainstream news channels. However, we should caution that many of these technologies are still experimental, especially cell-based therapies. It remains to be seen how these therapies will help patients on a large scale. The LSN team will keep you updated as we closely monitor trends in this field.

  1. PRNewswire. Global & USA Cancer Immunotherapy Market Analysis to 2020 – Analysis and Forecasts for the $41 Billion Market. Apr 10, 2015.
  2. Press Release. Celgene Corporation Enters into Strategic Immuno-Oncology Collaboration with AstraZeneca to Develop PD-L1 Inhibitor Program for Patients with Serious Blood Cancers. MarketWatch. Apr 24, 2015.

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