Understanding Immuno-Oncology

The field of immuno-oncology combines an understanding of how the body’s own defenses (e.g., the immune system) can be harnessed in the fight against cancer. Cancer cells, although different than the body’s healthy cells, find ways to disguise themselves so that the immune system doesn’t recognize them as non-self and target them for destruction. Immuno-oncology aims to tear off the cancer cell disguises so that the body’s own immune system can destroy these harmful cells.

In other words, immuno-oncology medications generally interact with the immune system, not the cancer cells directly.

Immuno-oncology is now viewed as a pillar in cancer treatment, alongside surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Immuno-oncology can take many forms, including boosting the immune system, increasing T-cell modulation, lessening immunosuppression within the tumor, and improving adaptive immunity.

In addition to immune-oncology medications that are already approved and in use, there are numerous potential medications that are being testing and could be joining the ranks of oncology therapy in the near future. A recent article in Nature Biotechnology gathered together a list of some of the most promising medications that are currently in development, they include the following selected examples:


Cancer type Compound Mechanism Development level
B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, multiple myeloma, head and neck cancer, colorectal cancer, non-small cell lung cancer, solid tumors Urelumab (BMS-663513; fully human IgG4 antibody) from BMS 4-1BB (CD137) agonist Phase 1/2
Solid tumors LAG525 (humanized IgG4 antibody) from Novartis LAG3 inhibitor Phase 1/2
Advanced solid tumors MK-4166 from Merck GITR agonist Phase 1
First-line metastatic breast cancer, melanoma, prostate cancer, renal cell carcinoma IMP321 (soluble fusion protein comprising four extracellular LAG3 domains fused to human IgG1 domain) from Prima BioMed LAG3 agonist Phase 1/2a
Advanced solid tumors, diffuse large cell lymphoma, head and neck cancer, prostate cancer MEDI6469 from AstraZeneca OX40 (CD134) agonist Phase 1/2
Solid tumors, B-cell lymphomas, CD20+ non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (in combination with Rituxan) PF-05082566 (fully humanized IgG2 antibody) from Pfizer 4-1BB (CD137) agonist Phase 1


Stephen C. Vogt, Pharm.D.
President and CEO
BioPlus Specialty Pharmacy



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Sheridan C. Immuno-oncology moves beyond PD-1. Nature Biotech 2015;33:673-5.

Research and markets: Immuno-oncology overview 2015. BusinessWire Oct 22, 2015.

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