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Top 10 clinical oncology news articles of 2021

Written by Jade Parker, Senior Editor

clinical oncology

As we look forward to 2022, we are taking the opportunity to collate our top clinical oncology news stories from the past year. Highlights include novel targets for difficult-to-treat cancers as well as huge strides being made in pushing forward the diagnosis of multiple cancer types. Catch up on the 10 biggest clinical oncology stories of the year below; we hope you enjoy our selection and look forward to what 2022 has in store!

CheckMate 648 – single and dual immunotherapy improves overall survival for some esophageal cancer patients

The most-read news story to come out of the 2021 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting (4–8 June 2021) focused on the CheckMate 648 Phase III trial. The positive results from this clinical trial have posed a new standard of care for the first-line treatment of advanced esophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC).

CheckMate 648 evaluated the efficacy and safety of an immunotherapy (IO; nivolumab plus ipilimumab)/IO combination, along with an IO (nivolumab)/chemotherapy combination, compared to standard chemotherapy. The treatment usually provided to ESCC patients has been chemotherapy, which carries a poor prognosis with only a median survival of approximately ~10 months.

In the trial, it was demonstrated that compared to standard of care chemotherapy, both a dual immunotherapy regimen and a single immunotherapy agent added to chemotherapy extend overall survival for ESCCC patients, particularly those positive for the immune checkpoint protein PD-L1.

NHS England launches the largest trial of Galleri™ multicancer early detection blood test

In the realm of clinical oncology diagnostics, the Galleri™ test caused quite a stir in 2021. The blood test, which can detect more than 50 types of cancer before symptoms appear, works by detecting cfDNA circulating in the blood through next-generation sequencing. NHS England launched the world’s largest trial of the revolutionary test in September 2021.

Since then, the multi-cancer detection test has been approved by the New York State Department of Health, making it now available to residents in the state of New York by prescription to complement existing single cancer screening tests. We look forward to seeing where the test is next approved for use in the coming year.

POLQ inhibitors: a novel drug class that could treat a range of BRCA-mutant cancers

A couple of weeks after the 2021 American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting, the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) published a paper exploring pioneering novel drug class – POLQ (Polθ) inhibitors – for the treatment of BRCA-mutant tumors. The key Polθ inhibitor that was identified in this study was termed ART558.

A few months after this research was published, ART4215 was given to a cancer patient for the first time. We are still awaiting the results of the trial, however, if successful then this could be a remedy for the development of resistance to PARP-inhibitors.

KRASG12C confirmed as a therapeutic target for advanced NSCLC

For many years, researchers considered KRAS an “undruggable” target. However, this year saw two drugs hailing in the era of direct inhibitors to treat KRASG12C-mutated NSCLC. The drugs are termed adagrasib and sotorasib.

Based on positive results presented at the European Lung Cancer Virtual Congress (ELCC; 25–27 March 2021), adagrasib received breakthrough therapy designation by the USA FDA in June. Correspondingly, sotorasib was approved by the US FDA and in November the European Medicines Agency (EMA)’s Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP) adopted a positive opinion for sotorasib.

NICE approves first immunotherapy combination for MSI-H/dMMR advanced bowel cancer

In June, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) (London, UK) approval of Opdivo® (nivolumab) plus Yervoy® (ipilimumab) provided a new treatment option for patients in England and Wales diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer and high microsatellite instability (MSI-H) or mismatch repair deficiency (dMMR).

The high number of gene mutations that occur in dMMR cancers can make them easier for the immune system to recognize and therefore a simpler target for immunotherapies to target. The GARNET study explored this theory by testing the effectiveness of the immune checkpoint inhibitor dostarlimab (Jemperli®) in dMMR endometrial cancer. Find out more about the GARNET study here.

ASCO21: KEYNOTE-564 demonstrates that Keytruda® extends disease-free survival in clear-cell renal cell carcinoma

The next big news story to emerge from the 2021 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting focuses on the KEYNOTE-564 study. The trial highlighted the success of Keytruda for a subtype of renal cell carcinoma. We recently explored this disease in more detail; have a look at our infographic for a snapshot of treatment options for renal cell carcinoma or watch our video interview with Brian Rini to find out about the importance of tyrosine-kinase inhibitors as a therapeutic option.

CD161 receptor – a novel target for immunotherapy in diffuse gliomas

Moving into the field of neuro-oncology, this year researchers uncovered a potentially more effective target in the treatment of diffuse gliomas. A team from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (MA, USA) demonstrated that the CD161 receptor is more abundant on the surface of gliomas than PD-1 and could be a better target for immunotherapy. Following the success of CD161 in pre-clinical trials, the company that is leading the charge on a CD161 inhibitor – Immunitas Therapeutics (MA, USA) –  announced that it plans to file an Investigational New Drug Application in early 2022 to begin human trials.

A shortage of clinical oncologists becoming a serious problem in the UK’s National Health Service

COVID-19 turned healthcare on its head, but that does not mean the threats posed by cancer, cardiac issues and countless other illnesses diminished. Not only did the lockdowns usher in a backlog of undiagnosed cancer patients but this has coincided with a stark fall in the number of clinical and consultant oncologists, as highlighted in one of our top read news stories. To delve further into what effect the pandemic has had on cancer care we spoke with Karol Sikora (Rutherford Health PLC, UK) who has worked hard to make the case for cancer care not to be forgotten in the face of COVID-19. Find out more in our interview and make sure to follow him on Twitter @ProfKarolSikora – additionally don’t forget to check out this podcast which explores ethical questions surrounding cancer and COVID-19 including – how can we define ‘non-essential’ cancer care?

Are cancer patients in remission at higher risk of severe COVID-19?

Continuing along the same vein, another one of our most popular clinical oncology news stories focused on whether cancer patients in remission at a higher risk of severe COVID-19? The findings drove home the importance of COVID-19 protection measures and vaccinations for all patients, not just those recently diagnosed or with active disease. The findings also paralleled prior reports showing the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minority communities – read more about this in our Peek Behind the Paper on how the pandemic has impacted care for minority cancer patients here.

US FDA approves Keytruda® combined with trastuzumab and chemotherapy for gastric cancer

The last news story of our round-up once draws attention to further positive results for pembrolizumab, this time for gastric cancer. Pembrolizumab was approved in combination with trastuzumab and chemotherapy, for the first-line treatment of patients with locally advanced unresectable or metastatic HER2-positive gastric or gastroesophageal junction adenocarcinoma.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our round-up of the most read clinical oncology news stories from across Oncology Central in 2021. Interested in more top content? View more in key topic areas now including immunotherapy, breast cancer, drug approval news, COVID-19 and personalized medicine.