It’s been almost a year since we covered Dendreon announcing its successful Phase III clinical trials for its prostate treatment Provenge. Now, the Seattle based company is continuing its work of getting Provenge, also known as Sipuleucel-T, to the market. The revolutionary treatment for metastasized prostate cancer uses the body’s own immune system to hunt down and kill cancer cells that have spread beyond the organ. Upgrading the immune system’s T-cells with special proteins, a process called Active Cellular Immunotherapy (ACI), lets them hunt down cancer cells via the antigens embedded on their surface. ACI seems to work well for prostate cancer and Dendreon is expanding it to treat bladder, breast, ovarian and colon cancer with Lapuleucel-T (which has already completed Phase I trials). With all this good news it’s no wonder that Dendreon’s stock (NASDAQ: DNDN) continues to climb. While it’s still too soon to know if Sipuleucel will become the next popular weapon in the cancer fighting arsenal, all signs point to Dendreon enjoying continued success in the months and years ahead.
Prostate cancer affects more than a million men in the US alone, and kills thousands a year. While there exist successful treatment strategies if the cancer is caught early, once metastasized survival rates are low. Which is why Sipuleucel-T/Provenge is such a promising treatment. Recently, Dendreon released updated results from their Phase III trials, showing results better than previously seen. The median survival rate of patients with metastasized Castration-Resistant Prostate Cancer (CRPC) when taking Provenge was 4.1 months longer than similar patients on placebo. The 3 year survival rate was 32.1% for Provenge versus 23.0% for placebo (an improvement of about 40%). With 512 patients in these trials, they are a good sign that Dendreon’s treatment can markedly improve a man’s chances of survival.
Provenge may also help in other stages of the disease. Dendreon has half a dozen other clinical trials for Sipuleucel-T underway, looking to see if it could help in different stages of cancer treatment, and looking to optimize the ACI process.
That ACI process could be the goose that lays the golden eggs. While Sipuleucel is aimed at getting T-cells to recognize prostate cancer antigens, the technique could be adapted to other cancers. Hence we have Lapuleucel. What makes ACI so promising is that it is like an upgrade for your immune system. In the past, we’ve likened ACI to training your body’s cells into becoming nanobots ready to fight cancer. The analogy is fairly apt. During the Provenge treatment, your blood is drawn and the T-cells isolated. Then these cells are infused with proteins that code for cancer antigens. Finally the cells are reintroduced into your body. T-cells that were once unable to find and attack the cancer are now combat ready.
Part of what makes this approach appealing is that it is (mostly) autologous. That is, it uses your body’s own cells. There is something very engrossing about the idea of having your body provide its own cure for a disease. Autologous stem cell treatments may enjoy some increase in their popularity due to a similar perception. In the future, we may be drawn to treatment concepts that look to balance or harness the healing properties of our cells rather than treat them with external chemicals or even surgery. Perhaps that’s silly. But in a world of accelerating technology we must acknowledge that consumers exposed to treatments far outside their experience won’t only make health decisions based on effectiveness, but also on how ‘familiar’ or ‘comforting’ a treatment seems.
Which is probably a moot point for Dendreon. Not only is ACI a way to boost your own immune system with specially chosen proteins, it’s also proven to be effective for prostate cancer. With stock prices rising, one ground breaking treatment nearing FDA approval, and more in the pipeline, Dendreon seems to be an interesting bet for success (many tech investors are supportive of it). Though I’m certainly impressed with Sipuleucel-T/Provenge and excited by Lapuleucel, I think the real story here is ACI. It may take us years before nanoparticles can actively effect the growth of cancer. Immune system cells, however, are a form of quasi-nanotechnology that we can tap into in the near term.
Biological, chemical, or mechanical, I’m up for any technology that fights prostate cancer. Hopefully in the next year Dendreon will be even further towards its goal of improving the survival of those facing the disease.