This year, roughly 9,910 American children under the age of 15 will be diagnosed with cancer, and 1,040 will die. And while advances in cancer treatment have increased the 5-year survival rate for youth and adolescent cancer patients to 85%, it simply isn’t enough. But there may be hope on the horizon yet as scientists move ever closer to a treatment for Ewing sarcoma, a pervasive and difficult-to-treat cancer that attacks bones and soft tissue and is more common in teens and young adults than any other age group. Recently, the research team found the silver bullet: a protein biomarker present on most Ewing sarcoma tumors. Now, they’re targeting that biomarker in the quest to help cancer patients’ immune systems recognize, attack, and destroy Ewing sarcoma tumors.
Why is Ewing sarcoma so difficult to treat and why does it target children?
Ewing sarcoma is primarily known as a rare bone cancer— which is diagnosed in only 200 to 250 patients per year— though it can also occur in soft tissue, and generally is first found in the legs, arms, or pelvis. Despite all the advances in knowledge about and treatments for cancer, scientists still don’t know exactly what causes primary bone cancer, whether it occurs in adults or children. There’s some evidence that Ewing sarcoma may sometimes appear during periods of bone growth, which are more intense during childhood and adolescence. Just 30% or less of Ewing sarcoma patients are over the age of 20, which tracks with slowed bone growth at older stages of life. The problem with Ewing sarcoma is that while it may start in one bone or one area of tissue, it can easily spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body, which makes it difficult to treat, and even more difficult for patients to fully recover.
What researchers are doing now to develop new treatments for Ewing sarcoma?
In collaboration with a team of researchers and physicians at UCLA, my own company, CancerVAX, has been working on developing treatments for Ewing sarcoma. It all started with the identification of a common protein biomarker present on the surface of more than 90% of Ewing sarcoma tumors. Once the research team identified this biomarker, they set to work targeting it with chimeric antigen receptor T-cells— lab-created receptors that bind to these proteins and mark them for destruction— and bispecific antibodies that teach the immune system to kill the tumors based on the presence of the protein biomarker. This work is giving rise to treatments that will help spur cancer patients’ own immune systems into action to fight against this otherwise difficult-to-terminate cancer. What’s more, the researchers have developed seven antibody candidates in just the past year, two of which will be used to further develop potential CAR T-cell treatments, and three that will soon become bispecific antibodies. The treatments could enter early testing phases as early as Spring 2024.
What do these advances mean for the treatment of cancer overall?
Importantly, the successful development of any new treatments and approaches for chemotherapy-resistant tumors like Ewing sarcoma would have immensely positive effects for cancer patients of any age battling the disease. It would also represent a major step forward in the development of immunotherapies, which help treat patients and put them on the path to recovery without also making them feel worse. That’s because immunotherapies are highly targeted; in this case, the therapies under development are being designed to coach, or encourage the immune system to recognize cancer cells and fight against them. Critically, that new knowledge and learning doesn’t go away, meaning that the immune system will recognize and fight those cancer cells in initial treatment, and again should they come back. Chemotherapy is excellent at killing fast-growing cells, but often comes with significant side effects, and the help it provides only last until the drugs are gone from the body. So, the closer science gets to a perfected immunotherapy for Ewing sarcoma, the closer patients get to a long-term workable treatment that could actually lead to a cure.
For patients fighting Ewing sarcoma, any step forward towards a new viable treatment is a positive one. And for the youngest of these, it could mean a new opportunity to live free from the tubes, needles, and stress of cancer, and to live strong within their own bodies.
Ryan Davies is CEO of CancerVAX.