Using the body’s own immune system to fight cancer has shown promise against several types of tumors, but it’s not always effective. “There’s a whole subset of patients that it really doesn’t work well in,” says Shelley Ackerman.
Tumors have to be “hot,” or inflamed, for immunotherapy drugs to work well. Hot tumors are characterized by the presence of a type of immune cell called T cells. Immunotherapy drugs give those T cells a boost, making them better cancer fighters. But many tumors are “cold” and thus evade the immune system. Without any T cells to work with, immunotherapy drugs fail against these tumors.
As a graduate student at Stanford, Ackerman worked with Edgar Engleman, a professor of medicine and pathology, to develop a therapy aimed at turning cold tumors into hot ones. The approach uses a tumor-targeting antibody chemically attached to an immune-stimulating small-molecule drug that prompts the immune system to recognize and attack the tumor, transforming it into a hot one invaded by tumor-killing T cells. Engleman founded a biotech company, Bolt Biotherapeutics, in 2015 to commercialize the approach; Ackerman joined Bolt in 2018.
As a child, Ackerman lost her uncle and a close friend to metastatic cancer within a year, and that experience made her want to keep working on the therapy in hopes that it would one day be used to treat patients.
Last year, Bolt began testing its approach in patients with breast, gastric, and other tumors that express a protein known as HER2. The company, which has raised $438 million in funding, is also developing drugs for colorectal, lung, and pancreatic cancers.