Gut bacteria link to immunotherapy sparks interest

One of the world’s largest cancer centers will collaborate with microbiome biotech Seres Therapeutics to investigate the gut microbiota’s role in shaping a patient’s response to immunotherapies. The MD Anderson Cancer Center and the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy signed the agreement with the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based biotech in November. Read more in Nature Biotechnology.

Faster, deeper, smaller—the rise of antibody-like scaffolds

In early May the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca completed a deal with Boston-based Pieris Pharmaceuticals worth up to $2.1 billion to bring Pieris’ anticalin asthma drug PRS-060, an engineered protein that mimics antibodies, to the clinic. And on June 1, Bicycle Therapeutics in Cambridge, UK, pulled in $52 million in a series B funding round with several high-profile investors to continue developing its bicycle peptides for a variety of cancer types.

Those are just two of the wide variety of protein scaffold drugs currently in development. “There’s a whole zoo of non-antibody scaffolds out there,” says Daniel Christ, an immunologist at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia. Read more in Nature Biotechnology.

Nature Outlook: Kidney cancer

Kidney cancer has long flown under the radar despite being one of the top-ten cancer killers worldwide. It lacks the research spotlight and public awareness of other cancers that can help to drive new discoveries. It remains hard to detect, difficult to treat and poorly understood. But that is starting to change as researchers dig into the mysteries surrounding the disease. Read more in this Nature Outlook that I edited.

Kinesin inhibitor marches toward first-in-class pivotal trial

The key to treating cancer is to put a stop to the out-of-control cell growth that leads to tumor formation. One way to do this is to go after the microtubules that help coordinate this rampant cell division. Yet because microtubules function in both dividing and non-dividing cells—for example, in non-dividing neurons they’re involved in intracellular transport—drugs that target microtubules directly tend to cause nerve pain and other side effects. That’s why researchers have been on the lookout for more specific targets in the microtubule machinery—ones that are only active in rapidly growing cells during mitosis.

The kinesin spindle protein (KSP), a molecular motor that crawls along the microtubules to help the cells divide, provides one such candidate target. To date, drugs designed to block this protein (which is also known as Eg5) have failed to live up to their potential, with something of a KSP inhibitor graveyard littered with failed and abandoned products from companies including Cytokinetics, AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly and others. Read more in Nature Medicine.

Small charities bring opportunities to neglected fields of research

Twenty years ago, Nick Lemoine was the only researcher in the UK dedicated to pancreatic cancer. “I’m pretty sure Walter Bodmer, the head of the Imperial Cancer Reseach Fund, thought I was working on prostate cancer, because it started with a ‘P’,” he says. “I didn’t disabuse him of that, it was just easier that way.”

But over the past few years the situation has begun to change dramatically thanks in no small way to the efforts of small but pioneering research charity the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund founded in 2004 by Maggie Blanks. Read more in Research Fortnight.