A revolutionary new cancer treatment – and the blue-chip stock set to benefit

A new kind of cancer therapy could make a big difference to survival rates - and transform the fortunes of one big UK drugs company. Matthew Partridge explains.

140801-cancer

A revolution in medicine is picking up steam a revolution that could transform the prospects of many cancer patients.

For years there have been three main ways to fight cancer: surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. They all boil down to destroying the cancer cells, either by cutting them out, burning them or poisoning them.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Become a smarter, better informed investor with MoneyWeek.

In many cases this works, but sadly not for everyone.

The good news is that scientists are now developing a new kind of cancer therapy, one that could make a big difference to survival rates.

Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

And it could also transform the fortunes of one big UK drugs company.

Using the body's own immune system to fight cancer

The first person to actively use this knowledge to fight the disease was William Coley, a New York surgeon and bone cancer specialist. After one of his first patients died of cancer, he searched for treatments that could improve survival rates. He observed that those who developed infections from surgery were, paradoxically, more likely to survive afterwards.

Taking a gamble, he injected streptococcus bacteria into a patient who had cancer. The patient's malignant tumour shrank. Coley went on to use the method (known as Coley's Toxins') on over 1,000 patients until his death in 1937.

Yet his breakthrough was ignored by most of the medical profession. Doctors of the time used case studies rather than proper trials. This made it hard to gauge survival rates for particular therapies. And modern trials of Coley's Toxins have produced mixed results compared to modern therapies, though the treatment may have some use in advanced cases.

Meanwhile, the development of radiation therapy and early forms of chemotherapy which seemed to provide more immediate benefits also reduced interest in Coley's techniques. Their use finally died out in the 1950s.

Three new approaches to attacking cancer

Basically, there are three distinct strands to this, each of which has produced useful treatments.

Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

The simplest idea is to develop antibodies that can stimulate the immune system to identify, and then then attack, cancer cells. Rituximab, the first antibody targeting blood cancer, was approved in 1998, and is now a standard treatment. Additional antibodies have been released, and several more are in development.

A similar approach which is gaining traction is based on evidence that cancer cells produce molecules (known as PD-1, PD-L1 and PD-L2) that act like brakes on the immune system and prevent them from being destroyed. Targeting and turning off these molecules can allow the body's defences to do their work.

An even more radical approach is to attempt to re-engineer a person's immune system altogether. This involves taking white blood cells from the patient's body and modifying them using genetic engineering, so that they can more effectively deal with the cancer when they're back in the body.

Make no mistake these are all high-risk approaches. Trying to find drugs that will allow the immune system to fight cancer is a case of trial and error. Individual cancers vary from person to person. Many people may not receive any benefit at all from these approaches.

And a stimulated immune system can spin out of control, causing auto-immune diseases that attack healthy tissue or even organs. Patients may also develop antibodies that target or interfere with cancer drugs they are using.

As a result, these treatments have mainly been tested on people with advanced cancers that are otherwise untreatable.

Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

However, despite all the caveats, the results for this group have been promising. For instance, one PD-1 inhibitor (ipilimumab) has shrunk the tumours of more than half of people with a sub-type of an incurable lung cancer, and dramatically boosted their survival rates.

Pfizer wasn't just looking to dodge taxes when it bid for Astra

AstraZeneca

LSE: AZN

)

In 2011 it bought the rights to Tremelimumab, which inhibits molecules that protect cancer cells, from Pfizer. When Pfizer tried to buy Astra earlier this year, it wasn't just for the tax breaks (attractive though they were). It was partly to get the rights to Tremelimumab back.

In an effort to increase the speed of drug development, Astra has just signed partnership deals with Japanese firm Kyowa Hakko Kirin and Advaxis, which specialises in immunotherapies.

Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

At 17 times 2015 earnings, AstraZeneca is by no means cheap. However, its strong pipeline should allow it to generate enough cash to maintain its dividend of 3.8%.

There are some smaller stocks in this field which, while higher risk, are certainly worth investigating. My colleague Tom Bulford covers one of these and lots of other exciting medical breakthroughs in his Red Hot Biotech Alert newsletter. If you'd like to know more about subscribing to his in-depth research, call our customer services team on 020 7633 3602.

Red Hot Biotech Alert is a regulated product issued by Fleet Street Publications Ltd. Your capital is at risk when you invest in shares, never risk more than you can afford to lose. Forecasts are not a reliable indicator of future results. Please seek independent financial advice if necessary. Fleet Street Publications Ltd. 0207 633 3600.

Our recommended articles for today

The one word I'm sick of hearing

Investors should head for the bunkers

SUBSCRIBERS ONLY

Tensions are rising between the West and Russia. This will have a serious impact on the economy. John Stepek explains how you can protect your investments.

On this day in history

1 August 1981: MTV goes on air

Advertisement

Recommended

Visit/investments/stocks-and-shares/share-tips/600641/share-tips-of-the-week
Share tips

Share tips of the week

MoneyWeek’s comprehensive guide to the best of this week’s share tips from the rest of the UK's financial pages.
17 Jan 2020
Visit/519913/share-tips-8-stocks-for-robust-returns
Share tips

Share tips: eight stocks that should deliver robust returns

Ryan Ermey of US publication Kiplinger’s Personal Finance chooses his favourite stocks for the next decade, which should be able to grow for years.
28 Dec 2019
Visit/519724/share-tips-of-the-week-166
Share tips

Share tips of the week

MoneyWeek’s comprehensive guide to the best of this week’s share tips from the rest of the UK's financial pages.
20 Dec 2019
Visit/519436/share-tips-of-the-week-165
Share tips

Share tips of the week

MoneyWeek’s comprehensive guide to the best of this week’s share tips from the rest of the UK's financial pages.
13 Dec 2019

Most Popular

Visit/investments/commodities/gold/600874/gold-is-at-its-highest-level-in-years-heres-how-to-invest
Gold

Gold is at its highest level in years – here’s how to invest

Gold's rise at a time when the dollar is unnervingly strong isn't unheard of – but it is curious. John Stepek explains what's going on, and what it me…
21 Feb 2020
Visit/investments/stocks-and-shares/600863/sirius-minerals-anglo-american-takeover
Stocks and shares

Do you own shares in Sirius Minerals? Here’s what you need to do now

Mining giant Anglo American has proposed a cash takeover of Yorkshire-based minnow Sirius Minerals. Unhappy shareholders must decide whether to accept…
20 Feb 2020
Visit/economy/600875/money-minute-24-february-house-prices-unemployment-and-corporate-results
Economy

Money Minute 24 February: house prices, unemployment and corporate results

Money Minute: previewing the week's most important economic and financial goings on, including the latest house price, and unemployment figures, and …
24 Feb 2020
Visit/investments/commodities/600729/the-rare-earth-metal-that-wont-be-a-secret-for-long
Sponsored

The rare earth metal that won't be a secret for long

SPONSORED CONTENT – You can’t keep a good thing hidden forever; now is the time to consider Pensana Rare Earths and the rare earth metals NdPr.
31 Jan 2020