'Smart warheads' of cancer: Experts' excitement for treatment approach grows

Cancer experts are increasingly optimistic about the potential for antibody-drug conjugates to become a standard treatment approach. The therapies involve attaching chemotherapy to an antibody to deliver targeted doses of chemo to cancer cells, with fewer side effects. 

The FDA approved the first antibody-drug conjugate, or ADC, in 2000 to treat acute myeloid leukemia. As of last June, 11 had been approved. While ADCs are not new, they began to attract more interest from drugmakers in recent years, which analysts say is likely due to improvements in technology that seem to have made newer iterations of the drugs safer and more effective.

More than 100 are in clinical development and oncologists are growing increasingly excited, NBC News reported June 2. 

"There's been an explosion of these agents over the past couple of years and we have a ton of them in clinical trials right now," Erika Hamilton, MD, medical oncologist and director of breast cancer and gynecologic cancer research at Nashville, Tenn.-based Sarah Cannon Research Institute, told the news outlet. 

By adding specialized monoclonal antibodies to chemotherapy, the approach enables chemotherapy drugs to target cancer cells more precisely. It also enables more of the chemo drug to reach tumor cells, experts explained. 

"I would describe them as smart warheads," Sophia Karagiannis, PhD, translational cancer immunologist at Kings College London, told NBC. "I think the future will be that we will be able to combine chemotherapy with many of these smart drugs." 

New research presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology found patients with multiple myeloma and breast cancer lived longer without their cancers progressing compared to patients who received standard chemotherapy. 

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