Dr. Ezra Cohen, from left, Dr. Rafael Bejar and Dr. Scott Lippman of the University of California, San Diego’s Moores Cancer Center are key players in efforts in the region at finding innovative cancer treatments.

Dr. Ezra Cohen, from left, Dr. Rafael Bejar and Dr. Scott Lippman of the University of California, San Diego’s Moores Cancer Center are key players in efforts in the region at finding innovative cancer treatments. Photo by Melissa Jacobs.

What if we could engineer “killer cells” to wage war on tumors, and then program the little soldiers to seek a specific kill zone? What if glowing tumors could tell doctors which tissue material to remove during surgery?

These are just two of the recent breakthroughs in cancer research being undertaken by the hundreds of local biotech firms that are pumping money and resources into the oncology market — a market that’s booming with players, innovations and a demand that just won’t quit.

With a skyrocketing incidence rate and 13.7 million Americans living with cancer or a history of cancer in 2012, the oncology drug market is projected to be valued at $109 billion by 2020, according to Ace Business and Market Research Group, a research firm focused on medical technology and pharmaceuticals.

The California Healthcare Institute (CHI), in a report released in November, said companies developing drugs and therapies for cancer consistently rank at the top of the biomedical industry charts, with 319 new drugs at the end-phase of development in California alone.

Cancer drug companies often benefit from quick regulatory review times due to a “fast track” option for drugs treating life-threatening diseases. This shrinks the timespan between research and development dollars flowing out and sales and commercialization dollars flowing in.

With a high rate of demand and less red tape, experts say investors are much more likely to support companies pursuing inventive ways to treat cancer.

The San Diego Business Journal spoke with some of the region’s leading cancer researchers and asked them to identify emerging technologies in the cancer field. We take a look at four of those therapies.

‘Killer Cells’

Perhaps one of the most intriguing new therapies involves engineering natural “killer cells” to seek out and attack tumors. It’s called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, and it’s dangerously effective.

“It’s a fascinating technology,” said Dr. Scott Lippman, an expert in cancer research and treatments at the University of California, San Diego and director of its Moores Cancer Center. “You take these T-cells and engineer them so that they’re incredibly armed to kill the cancer. Then you give the T-cells back to the patient. It’s like arming the patient with missiles.”

This therapy can be so powerful that patients must be admitted to the hospital while the therapy is administered. Sometimes, Lippman said, patients can end up in the intensive care unit.

“These T-cells become so effective that they kill cancer cells too quickly,” Lippman said. “This releases the material inside the cells which can kill (the patient). So you have to watch the patient and do dialysis to clear out the dead cells.”

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