STAT+: Novel strategy of attacking sugars on cancer cells to free immune system shows promise in early tests

A new kind of chemistry, which won the Nobel Prize, gets its first test as a possible new means to awaken the immune system to fight cancerous tumors.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Many cancer cells shroud themselves in a thicket of complex sugars called glycans that help them suppress immune cells seeking to kill them. But in most of cancer research, these glycans have been ignored because they’ve been exceedingly difficult to study. Stanford biochemist Carolyn Bertozzi had to invent a new field of chemistry, called bioorthogonal chemistry, just to image them — a discovery for which she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2022.

Now that work is fueling the creation of novel immunotherapy drugs through a biotech that Bertozzi helped co-found, Palleon Pharmaceuticals. At the American Association of Cancer Research annual meeting on Tuesday, researchers presented results from a Phase 1/2 clinical trial testing one of those agents, called E-602, showing preliminary signs of activity and safety. Although the trial doesn’t yet show whether E-602 will be effective as a cancer medicine, experts say the data are an encouraging sign that patients may soon see therapeutics born out of an entirely new field of science.

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