MacDougall Musings

Promising Technologies Emerging at AACR 2024

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting is one of the biggest international, interdisciplinary conferences for sharing groundbreaking oncology research. With Q1 only recently ending, the innovative technologies and exciting discoveries shared at this event are well positioned to draw substantial attention throughout 2024. Read on to learn more about some of the most promising scientific updates highlighted at AACR:


Cancer Vaccines

While the concept of vaccines to help train the immune system to attack cancer cells has been around for decades, creating a therapeutic cancer vaccine to successfully stimulate a sufficient immune response in early-stage blood cancers and solid tumors has long been a challenge.

Safety, delivery and durability have been barriers for the field to overcome, but recent critical breakthroughs have begun to lay the groundwork for a cancer vaccine with robust therapeutic potential, and a number of candidates were showcased at AACR.

From major players in the cancer vaccine space like Moderna and BioNTech to promising up-and-comers including Geneos Therapeutics and Elicio Therapeutics, new data are reviving the hope that a broad range of therapeutic cancer vaccines could become available to millions of patients in the not-too-distant future.

What are cancer vaccines? Cancer vaccines utilize tumor-specific antigens, often derived from a patient’s biopsy, to prevent or treat cancer by teaching the immune system to attack cancer cells at early stages, ideally before disease is even detectable beyond a blood test.

What’s new in cancer vaccines? Historically, attempts at developing a cancer vaccine have fallen short due to a variety of challenges. For example, it has been difficult for researchers to generate an immune response that attacks tumors while leaving healthy cells unharmed. But now, novel approaches like the use of viral vectors or mRNA to deliver antigens are expanding the potential of cancer vaccines. At AACR, a number of companies demonstrated the ability to utilize patient-specific targets, enhanced delivery methods and strategic design to develop cancer vaccines with strong therapeutic potential.


Computational Oncology

We would be remiss not to mention the transformative potential of artificial intelligence (AI) for the field of oncology. AACR’s Opening Plenary kicked off with sessions describing the use of AI for everything from biological and spatial maps of tumors for clinical pathology advances – opening the door to predicting clinical response from a histology slide – to multi-omics and drug discovery engines that can be used to identify new cancer targets.

What is computational oncology? By leveraging large datasets of multi-omic cancer data (genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, etc.), computational modeling through AI and machine learning (ML) enable pattern detection with the aim of better diagnosing and treating cancer.   

What’s new in computational oncology? The Cancer Genome Atlas Program began in 2006 to characterize multi-omic clinical samples for use in diagnosing and treating cancer, so while the field is not nascent, the improvements in computational power and ML algorithm development mean that our ability to harness AI and ML has become much more sophisticated. Single-cell and spatial multi-omics projects have exploded, and drug discovery and development will benefit from AI’s ability to recognize complex patterns in massive datasets.


Liquid biopsy

It’s well established that cancer is easiest to treat when it is detected early – prompt diagnosis can save lives. The development of liquid biopsy-based assays for disease surveillance and early detection of cancer have allowed physicians to identify early-stage cancers more quickly and easily than ever before.

While there are a variety of liquid biopsy assays currently available for clinical use, new developments shared at AACR have opened up a new range of possibilities for improving the sensitivity and reliability of these minimally invasive detection methods.

What is liquid biopsy? Liquid biopsy technology enables scientists to diagnose cancers in their earliest stages by drawing mere milliliters of blood and identifying genetic mutations commonly found in tumors circulating in an individual’s bloodstream. The process is quick and minimally invasive, and notably can detect malignancy before clinical symptoms arise or tumors grow large enough to be detected via imaging.

What’s new in liquid biopsy technology? Several companies and academic organizations shared new developments in early cancer detection. Advances in understanding the biological signatures of cancer, such as circulating tumor DNA and microRNA, have resulted in improved biomarker identification. In addition, researchers from City of Hope shared data showing that an exome-based liquid biopsy test detected more than 90% of pancreatic cancer cases in certain populations. As advanced pancreatic cancer is one of the most challenging diseases to treat, this level of accuracy, subject to further clinical validation, is very encouraging.


Improvements in tumor targeted therapies

With all the recent buzz about antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs), it’s no surprise that one of the popular topics at AACR was improvements in precision tumor targeting to narrow therapeutic toxicity. Researchers and media alike showed particular interest in the expansion of novel payloads conjugated to antibodies.

What is tumor targeting? Targeted cancer therapies are designed to precisely reach tumors to control cancer growth and spread while sparing healthy tissues and cells. For example, monoclonal antibodies are often employed based on their specificity to attach to protein targets on the surface of cancer cells, where they can modify interactions between immune cells or deliver cytotoxic drugs directly to tumors.

What’s new in tumor targeting? Advancements in the antibody vectors (such as bispecifics) were trending at AACR, as well as expansions in the types of cytotoxic payloads conjugated to these antibodies. Examples include antibody-cell conjugates, wherein therapeutic cells are linked to antibodies, as well as degrader-antibody conjugates (DACs), which deliver protein degrader payloads to tumors. DACs use antibodies for cell-specific internalization, and once inside cancer cells, release protein degradation payloads. Safety and optimization remain hurdles to overcome, but the realm of possibilities for combining the specificity of antibodies with a wider variety of cancer-killing payloads is exciting.

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