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Cancer drug’s stumbles prompt calls to rethink how immune therapies are tested

Nov 21, 2018

By Heidi Ledford

The stunning failure of a once-promising cancer drug has got some researchers arguing that the field has moved too fast in its embrace of therapies that unleash the immune system.

The drug, epacadostat, blocks a protein called IDO that hobbles immune cells if left unchecked. Early trials suggested that the drug could be a powerful weapon against some advanced cancers when paired with existing therapies that bolster the body’s immune response to tumours. But a large, controlled study of epacadostat was halted in April after the drug failed to show benefits.

Now, a researcher who helped to conduct some of the first trials of the drug says that it was pushed into large clinical studies too soon — and that the same could be true of other cancer immunotherapies in development. “People ask me right now, ‘What are you excited about?’” says Jason Luke, an oncologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois who aired his concerns last week at a meeting of the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer in Washington DC. “And I say, ‘Unfortunately, little to nothing,’ because almost none of this is done properly.”

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