“In simple terms, we’re making new medicines that can have a transformational impact on cancer,” says Dr. Axel Hoos about his day-to-day work.
Dr. Hoos, a senior vice president at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and head of oncology research and development at the company, leads a team of biopharmaceutical researchers and one of their areas of research is immuno-oncology (IO), which helps a patient’s immune system attack cancerous tumors in the same way it would attack a virus or bacteria. Dr. Hoos has been a vital player in this innovative area of research. Not only did he invent the term “immuno-oncology,” he was also an early pioneer in the space, investigating the relationship of the immune system to cancer when the broader health care industry was focused on traditional therapies like chemotherapy or targeted therapies.
One of the potential new medicines that Dr. Hoos and his team are working to develop is called BCMA (for B-cell Maturation Antigen) and is being studied in patients with multiple myeloma, which is a type of blood cancer. Others are immune agonists like ICOS (Inducible Co Stimulator) representing the next generation of IO drugs. Before transitioning to his work as a biopharmaceutical researcher, Dr. Hoos worked as a surgeon and scientist specializing in cancer, “because of the high unmet need,” he says.
The Driving Force
Dr. Hoos is motivated by the understanding that his work has the potential to impact society in profound ways. “It means a lot to be able to contribute knowledge that is translated into real impact for patients and society,” he says. “Science is supposed to help you understand the world you’re in. It sounds simple, but it’s at the heart of what we do as biopharmaceutical researchers.”
The amount of collaboration among biopharmaceutical researchers is also an inspiration to Dr. Hoos. Tools that seemed like science fiction a decade ago, such as artificial intelligence and even IO, sit at the forefront of research today. Dr. Hoos sees hundreds of groups within the industry using these tools to develop innovative treatments that have a transformational effect. “We’re integrating different areas of science to make progress faster,” he says. “Immunotherapy is one part of that.”
To further enhance this collaboration, Dr. Hoos co-leads the Partnership for Accelerating Cancer Therapies (PACT), a five-year public-private research collaboration, which is part of the Cancer Moonshot and managed by the National Institutes of Health. PACT acts as a facilitator, ensuring biomarker research tools are harmonized to reduce data variability throughout the health care industry, to avoid wasting time and funding on duplicative efforts. “If we can achieve PACT’s goals, we will overcome some historical pitfalls in drug development,” says Dr. Hoos.
Challenges, Chances and Looking Forward
Looking ahead, Dr. Hoos says the greatest challenge to his research has been to convince people that IO treatments are even possible. “For 30 years, we’ve been treating cancer patients with chemotherapy. Convincing people that a new paradigm such as IO is useful is the first big step in the right direction. We need to constantly challenge old assumptions in the industry if we want to make innovation happen.”
Dr. Hoos also says he wants to remind people that while there are many players in the health care industry, they are all part of a complex ecosystem that moves tirelessly to improve the lives of patients. “Biotech, academia, pharma and other functions like venture capital – they all fit together in a larger ecosystem, and we can’t be successful if we isolate one over the other. The medicines we make are for the people and the communities we serve.”
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