One of the new trends in the development of cancer therapy has been the involvement of the body's immune system, which is our primary defense mechanism against disease. The general idea is to develop new therapies that direct our immune system response against cancer cells, which results in their destruction through a natural and highly effective system. In stark contrast is chemotherapy, which is today's standard of care for most cancer patients. Chemotherapy is a poison that destroys normal and cancer cells in the hopes that most (if not all) of a patient's cancer cells are wiped out in the process.
While there are a number of new treatments being developed to improve chemotherapy through its actual delivery or through its ability to specifically target cancer cells, cancer immunotherapy could be an entirely different level of safety and efficacy for cancer patients.
Since cancer immunotherapy is quite underdeveloped at this point there is still some skepticism over its viability, but there is proof that it works. Take Provenge (sipuleucel-t), for instance. While there is no question that Provenge was an extremely disappointing business decision for its developer Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN) and the company's shareholders, everyone generally agrees that it works very well as a supplemental treatment for metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer (MCRPC). The therapy has shown ability to extend MCRPC patient survival by a median of 4.1 months, according to its Phase III IMPACT trial.
We saw another successful cancer immunotherapy drug approved for melanoma treatment in 2011 called Yervoy (ipilimumab), which is marketed by Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY). It is an inhibitor of a protein call CTLA-4 which keeps Cytotoxic T lymphocytes "in check" through one of the body's mechanisms. Through its mechanism of action, Yervoy basically frees one of the natural restrictions put on the immune system to allow for targeting of malignant melanoma cells to great success.
A very similar drug known as GCS-100 targets a protein called Galectin-3, which also restricts the immune system and impairs its ability to find and destroy cancer cells. This drug is being developed by a tiny drug developer in San Diego called La Jolla Pharmaceutical Company (NASDAQ:LJPC). GCS-100 is the company's flagship drug, and is in phase I trials for three indications (including cancer immunotherapy). It seems that the company is going to first develop the drug as a treatment for melanoma alongside Yervoy.
This could be exciting for investors due to the extreme success of Yervoy in melanoma. The drug generates roughly $179 million per quarter, and takes a huge chunk of the melanoma market (which is also expected to grow rapidly in the next few years due to growth in melanoma incidence rates). While La Jolla's GCS-100 is in the very early stages of development (still phase I trials), I think that the melanoma market is a great target - especially for budding cancer immunotherapy drugs.
Adding to this is a chance that there will be a partnership or acquisition by Bristol-Myers Squibb. The company's market capitalization of ~$820,000 makes it an extremely cheap but potentially lucrative acquisition for Bristol-Myers that would make a lot of sense due to "pairing" potential with Yervoy. This seems to be what La Jolla is hoping for, and it does make a lot of sense.