- In 1996, Nobel Laureate James Allison identified a molecule called CTLA-4, a key regulator of the immune system, which started the whole scientific and medical revoluti,on around the new way to fight the real epidemic we would face in the 20th century
- Bristol Myers Squibb’s extraordinary journey, based in the discovery of ipilimumab in 1996, to its current position at the forefront of cancer immunotherapy highlights the potential of human and scientific capability in the quest to conquer one of the most formidable diseases of our time.
- Immunotherapy has revolutionized oncology, bringing new hope to patients who, a decade ago, faced a much bleak outlook
Eduardo Fernández / Terabithia Press / Madrid / SPA
The human immune system is a formidable army of cells and proteins designed to identify and destroy foreign invaders, such as bacteria, viruses, and abnormal cells. Yet, cancer cells often manage to evade the immune system’s surveillance by presenting themselves as seemingly normal. This ability to go unnoticed is what makes cancer such a challenging adversary. Immunotherapies harness the power of the immune system by training it to recognize and attack cancer cells. This approach represents a significant departure from traditional treatments, which directly target cancer cells and often cause collateral damage to healthy tissues.
But in the field of oncology, where advances can make the difference between life and death, or at least prolong a patient’s life expectancy with an acceptable quality of life, one international company has consistently pushed the boundaries of innovation to unlock the potential of the human immune system in the fight against cancer. Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS), based in the United States but with one of its main satellite companies in Madrid, Spain, has been at the forefront of this mission, and its trajectory from the discovery of ipilimumab to its most recent advances is a testament to the power of perseverance, innovation, and dedication to improving the lives of cancer patients around the world. Cutting-edge research, science, and above all a vision for the future, a way of working with an eye on ultimate long-term success, have made BMS the reference to follow in this type of therapy.
A Trailblazing Discovery: Ipilimumab and James Allison Nobel Prize
This scientific and medical story begins in the late 20th century, when Dr. James Allison, a visionary immunologist based in Texas, made a revolutionary discovery. In 1996, he identified a molecule called CTLA-4, a key regulator of the immune system. Recognizing its potential in cancer treatment, Dr. Allison explored ways to harness the power of the immune system to attack and destroy cancer cells.
More than a decade later, following one of the most remarkable efforts in the history of biopharmaceuticals applied to cancer treatment, in March 2011, Bristol Myers Squibb obtained FDA approval for ipilimumab, a monoclonal antibody that inhibits CTLA-4. It was a historic moment in the field of cancer treatment. It was a landmark moment in the field of immunotherapy, as for the first time an immunotherapy had demonstrated substantial efficacy against advanced melanoma. The molecule Ipilimumab became a beacon of hope for cancer patients who had few treatment options. And it was only the beginning of a true scientific and medical revolution, which leading oncologists have decided to consider the basis for a total paradigm shift in the treatment of certain types of tumors.
Moving forward with momentum
Bristol Myers Squibb’s commitment to cancer immunotherapy did not stop with ipilimumab (marketed under the brand name Yervoy) and the company continued to build on its success, achieving critical milestones along the way.
Here is a brief description of some historical milestones in order to advance the understanding that we are talking about a before and after the discovery of immunotherapy and its hospital application in the history of medicine:
- March 2015: Nivolumab, marketed as Opdivo, received FDA approval. This anti-PD-1 antibody represented another remarkable breakthrough in the field of immunotherapy, offering new hope for patients with various types of cancer.
- October 2015: The FDA approved the combination of nivolumab and ipilimumab for the treatment of metastatic melanoma, providing a potent treatment option that improved outcomes for patients.
- June 2020: Bristol Myers Squibb announced positive results from the CheckMate -9ER trial, leading to FDA approval of the combination of nivolumab and cabozantinib for patients with advanced renal cell carcinoma.
- May 2022: The FDA granted accelerated approval for relatlimab, an anti-LAG-3 antibody, in combination with nivolumab for patients with advanced melanoma. This represented another important milestone in cancer immunotherapy.
The Immune System’s Hidden Potential
Bristol Myers Squibb’s unwavering commitment to advancing cancer immunotherapy continues to shape the future of oncology. Its pipeline is filled with promising candidates targeting a variety of cancers and using innovative combination therapies. As the company explores the potential of novel molecules, patients and healthcare professionals can anticipate the arrival of more innovative treatments.
«We are committed to improving the lives of cancer patients through innovative therapies,» says Dr. Giovanni Caforio, President and CEO of Bristol Myers Squibb. «Our journey from ipilimumab to our current portfolio of immunotherapies exemplifies our dedication to finding new and effective ways to treat cancer.»
Giovanni Caforio, MD, has been chief executive officer of Bristol Myers Squibb since May 2015 and has been serving on the company’s Board of Directors since June 2014. In May 2017, he assumed the role of chairman of the board. As CEO, Giovanni has led the company’s focus on researching and developing transformational medicines, which includes a leading portfolio of immunotherapies that are fundamentally changing the way cancer is treated.
New person in US to guide Bristol Myers Squibb through its next chapter
Bristol Myers Squibb HQ Comms said on April 23 CEO Giovanni Caforio will step down now, in November, and be succeeded by Chief Commercialization Officer Christopher Boerner, who has been CCO since 2018, and was named chief operating officer until he takes the top job. He joined the company in 2015 and previously served in leadership roles at Seattle Genetics Inc and Roche’s Genentech, BMS informs. Boerner received his PhD and MA in business administration from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and holds a BA in economics and history from Washington University in St. Louis.
«Chris is an exceptional leader, and the Board and I believe he is the right person to guide Bristol Myers Squibb through its next chapter. Boerner’s expertise has been integral to our commercial success during his tenure at BMS. His strategic focus and passion for science, coupled with his commitment to patients, make him uniquely suited for the role. I am confident that the team will take advantage of our significant growth opportunities under Boerner’s leadership,» said Caforio.
Theodore R. Samuels will continue to serve as Lead Independent Director: “I want to thank Giovanni for his tremendous contributions to Bristol Myers Squibb. Under his leadership over the past eight years, Bristol Myers Squibb has nearly tripled its revenue; successfully completed our transformative combination with Celgene; overseen highly strategic acquisitions and partnerships; and launched 12 new medicines, including five first-in-class assets in five different disease areas. He has fostered a high-performance culture and highly engaged workforce and has been a strong advocate and champion for diversity and inclusion to drive innovation. His work has helped to solidify the foundation from which we will continue to build for the future.”, he said.
Commenting on his appointment, Boerner said: “I am honored to serve as Bristol Myers Squibb’s next CEO. Bristol Myers Squibb is a special company, having pioneered many of the first generation of medicines that benefit patients across many disease areas. Today, we are poised to bring the next wave of innovative medicines to market, and my confidence in our future is stronger than ever. I look forward to continuing to work closely with Giovanni as we deliver for patients, shareholders and our other stakeholders.”
We can look to the future with optimism, advances BMS
Bristol Myers Squibb’s «extraordinary journey from the discovery of ipilimumab to its current position at the forefront of cancer immunotherapy» highlights the potential of human and scientific capacity in the quest to conquer one of the most formidable diseases of our time. With each milestone, they bring new hope and better prospects to countless people affected by cancer. «As the journey continues, we can look to the future with optimism and the conviction that even greater achievements are on the horizon. The goal is that within two or three decades cancer, if it is not a curable disease (which it probably is), will be considered a chronic disease of very low lethality, regardless of its prevalence in the population», BMS informs.
Unleashing the Power of Immunotherapy in the Fight Against Cancer
The human immune system is a formidable army of cells and proteins designed to identify and destroy foreign invaders, such as bacteria, viruses, and abnormal cells. Yet, cancer cells often manage to evade the immune system’s surveillance by presenting themselves as seemingly normal. This ability to go unnoticed is what makes cancer such a challenging adversary.
Immunotherapies harness the power of the immune system by training it to recognize and attack cancer cells. This approach represents a significant departure from traditional treatments, which directly target cancer cells and often cause collateral damage to healthy tissues.
Some types of immunotherapies
Immunotherapy has already demonstrated its potential in treating various types of cancer. Notable successes include melanoma, kidney cancer, lung cancer, head and neck cancer…There are several types of immunotherapies, each with its own approach to fighting cancer:
- Checkpoint Inhibitors: Checkpoint proteins act as brakes on the immune system, preventing it from attacking normal cells. Checkpoint inhibitors release these brakes, allowing the immune system to target and destroy cancer cells.
- CAR-T Cell Therapy: Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell therapy involves genetically modifying a patient’s T-cells to express a receptor that recognizes cancer cells, effectively turning the patient’s immune system into a precision-guided cancer killer.
- Monoclonal Antibodies: These are laboratory-made proteins that can mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off harmful antigens. They can be designed to target specific proteins on the surface of cancer cells, flagging them for destruction.
- Cytokines: Cytokines are signaling proteins that can stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells. Interferon and interleukin-2 are examples of cytokines used in cancer immunotherapy.
Challenges and Future Prospects
While immunotherapy holds immense promise, it is not without its challenges. These therapies can lead to immune-related side effects, and they are not effective for all types of cancer or in all patients. Additionally, they can be costly and are not universally accessible.
Looking ahead, researchers are focused on expanding the range of cancers that immunotherapies can effectively treat, improving response rates, and reducing side effects. They are also exploring combinations of different immunotherapies and other treatment modalities for enhanced efficacy.
As our understanding of the immune system and cancer biology deepens, the potential for harnessing immunotherapy in the fight against cancer becomes even more exciting. With continued research and clinical trials, the hope is that immunotherapies will become an integral part of personalized cancer treatment, providing new avenues for remission and long-term survival.
In the battle against cancer, immunotherapies represent a new and powerful ally. They have already achieved remarkable successes, and as science advances, the future of cancer treatment may be defined by the body’s own defenses, mobilized to fight one of its deadliest foes.
What Reasons Have Slowed Down Even Faster Development
A decade ago, cancer immunotherapy was in its infancy, and the reason was due to a combination of scientific and technological factors that limited its development and application compared to conventional therapies. At the beginning of the 21st century, cancer immunotherapy was neither widely known nor widely applied beyond clinical trials for the following reasons:
- Lack of In-Depth Knowledge: At the beginning of the 21st century, understanding of the relationship between the immune system and cancer was limited. Scientists were still discovering how cancer cells evade detection by the immune system and how therapies could be developed to trigger an effective immune response.
- Complexity of the Immune System: The immune system is extraordinarily complex, and its precise functioning in the context of cancer was an enigma. Understanding how to regulate and boost the immune system to specifically attack cancer cells required a deeper understanding of immune mechanisms.
- Side Effects and Toxicity: In the early stage, immunotherapy treatments often caused serious and sometimes fatal side effects. The medical community needed time to refine these therapies and reduce the risks associated with them.
- Limited Technological Development: Modern immunotherapy often involves the manipulation of immune system cells, such as T cells, or the design of cancer-specific monoclonal antibodies. The gene-editing techniques and technological platforms needed for these therapies were not as advanced as they are today.
BMS’s new impulse from Spain and Portugal
But thanks to the efforts of the medical community, the constant investment in research by biopharmaceutical companies such as BMS, and changes in North American and European regulatory policy, over the past decade, the landscape has changed dramatically. Advances in understanding the immune system, gene-editing technologies, antibody design, and improvements in therapeutics delivery have boosted the field of cancer immunotherapy. Notable successes in clinical trials, along with the approval of therapies such as ipilimumab, nivolumab, and pembrolizumab, have cemented immunotherapy as an effective approach in the fight against cancer. Immunotherapy has revolutionized oncology, bringing new hope to patients who, a decade ago, faced a much bleak outlook.
But in addition to oncology, BMS has maintained a strong focus on areas such as rare diseases and hematology, with the development of innovative treatments for patients suffering from rare conditions.
Changing the way we combat cancer
«Immunotherapy has transformed the way we combat cancer. At BMS, we are committed to pushing the boundaries of science to develop cutting-edge therapies that can make a difference in the lives of patients,» explained Sandra Orta, new BMS IBERIA CEO: «Checkpoint inhibitors have demonstrated remarkable success in various cancer types. We are continually expanding our research to uncover new checkpoints and develop novel inhibitors that can enhance the effectiveness of this treatment approach.»
«Combination therapies are a cornerstone of our strategy. By combining immunotherapies with other treatment modalities, we aim to create synergistic effects that lead to better patient outcomes. The goal is to provide more personalized and effective treatment options», she saids. The integration of these cutting-edge advancements into BMS’s portfolio is a top priority. Orta remarked, «We are focused on ensuring that our research and development pipeline is aligned with the latest innovations in immunotherapy. This includes both in-house developments and strategic collaborations with external partners to access the most promising technologies and ideas.»
Furthermore, BMS has been working to extend the reach of immunotherapy to a broader range of cancer types. Orta stated: «We are dedicated to expanding the indications for immunotherapy. Our ongoing clinical trials and research initiatives are aimed at exploring new possibilities and bringing hope to patients who may not have had effective treatment options in the past.»
With their focus on checkpoint inhibitors, combination therapies, and expanding treatment options, BMS continues to be a driving force in the evolution of cancer care through immunotherapy.
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