A protocol that arose from Weizmann Institute of Science research has led to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of a new biological drug for the treatment of a certain form of lung cancer. This is the third cancer drug to be developed on the basis of studies conducted by the Department of Immunology’s Prof. Michael Sela and colleagues.

Michael Sela

Prof. Michael Sela

All three drugs are antibodies that block a receptor called the epidermal growth factor receptor, or EGFR. This receptor, which is on the surface of cells, plays a role in the formation and spread of cancerous tumors. Used in combination with chemotherapy or radiation, blocking EGFR may prevent cancer from growing. Prof. Sela and colleagues Drs. Esther Aboud-Pirak and Esther Hurwitz discovered, a number of years ago, that EGFR-inhibiting antibodies produce a synergistic anticancer effect when used together with chemotherapy.

“It’s a great achievement of technology transfer: a single patent has led to three licensing agreements and three different therapies for various malignancies,” says Amir Naiberg, CEO of the Yeda Research and Development Company, which deals with the commercialization of the Weizmann Institute’s research.

The new drug, Portrazza (necitumumab), manufactured by Eli Lilly and Company, is to be given intravenously, in combination with chemotherapy drugs against metastatic squamous non-small-cell lung carcinoma. Few treatment options exist for this type of cancer, which is known to be difficult to treat. In a Phase III clinical trial, Portrazza, when given with the other drugs, improved the survival of patients with this disease.

The first drug to have stemmed from this research by Prof. Sela and his colleagues is Erbitux® (cetuximab), manufactured by Merck and Eli Lilly. Erbitux® is an EGFR blocker that has been approved in many countries for use in combination with chemotherapy or radiation for the treatment certain forms of head and neck carcinomas and metastatic colorectal cancer.

The second drug based on the same research is Vectibix® (panitumumab), manufactured by Amgen. This EGFR blocker is approved for the treatment of metastatic colorectal cancer. It is used either in combination with chemotherapy or sometimes – in cases in which chemotherapy fails – alone.

The three EGFR blockers are given to patients whose cancers have certain genetic features, and are saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of cancer patients all over the world.