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When thousands of cancer researchers from around the world gather in Chicago this weekend for the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting, drugs that fight tumors by boosting a patient’s immune system will take center stage, as they have in previous years. But the stage is more crowded, as researchers have begun in earnest combining these immunotherapies into experimental cocktails, hoping to push quickly past the limits of the drugs currently in use as single agents.
With the frenzy to test combinations, some of immunotherapy’s biggest champions now worry that the field is moving too fast; that studies are not being designed with enough care; and that the glut of combination trials—some estimates put the number north of 1,000 at the moment—is bound to provoke a backlash.
Promising science has a way of smacking into unexpected obstacles of biology, however. Despite recent advances, researchers are only scratching the surface of the complexity of the human immune system—and how it interacts with tumors that have their own genetic complexities and survival mechanisms.
One thing that would help, says Dana-Farber Cancer Institute president and CEO Laurie Glimcher: more funding for studies at academic centers (like Dana-Farber, it should be said) to analyze what’s happening with patients’ immune systems in and around a tumor when they receive an immunotherapy. This would help researchers understand the differences between those who respond to treatment and don’t.