Immuno-Oncology 101: Leveraging the Innate Immune System to Fight Cancer

Harnessing the power of the immune system has the potential to change the future of cancer treatment.

Most everyone knows that the immune system – a complex network of cells, organs and molecules – protects us from bacteria, viruses and other foreign invaders that can cause infection. What you may not know is that the immune system can also find and attack cancer cells. There are two main types of immune response:

Innate Immunity
The body’s first line of defense, innate immunity immediately protects us from foreign pathogens and abnormal cells, including tumor cells, through the activation of natural killer (NK) cells, macrophages and other white blood cells.

Adaptive Immunity
The body’s second line of defense, adaptive immunity is a learned defense system. It develops in response to exposure to a specific foreign pathogen or abnormal cell. Adaptive immunity uses different types of white blood cells, such as B cells and T cells, to build up long-term immunity and uses antibodies to identify and signal a need for destruction of a pathogen or cancer cell.

The rise of immuno-oncology

Over the last 100 years, the ways in which scientists and the medical community have used immune cells to fight cancer has evolved tremendously. This type of cancer treatment is known as immuno-oncology (I-O). The primary I-O approach leverages T cells from the adaptive immune system. This approach has proven to be successful and has led to the development of numerous FDA-approved treatments that utilize a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer. Yet, with every innovation, there has been room to build on these therapies to make them safer and more effective.

As researchers looked for opportunities to improve, they have learned more about the cells of the innate immune system. They recognized that NK cells have great potential to improve outcomes for people with cancer. NK cells have properties that make them particularly effective at naturally destroying tumor cells. These characteristics make them ideal for pairing with Affimed’s innate cell engagers (ICE®), which help redirect NK cells to the site of tumors and bind to them, enhancing natural anti-tumor activity.

Affimed’s pioneering approach to create the next breakthroughs in I-O

Although approved T cell-based I-O therapies have resulted in breakthroughs for some cancer patients, this type of treatment has limitations. Efficacy is often unpredictable, with some immunotherapies effective only in subsets of patients with certain types of cancers. Some patients develop resistance to these treatments or do not respond at all, and some treatments are associated with severe toxicities.

Recognizing these challenges, Affimed is taking a pioneering approach to I-O drug discovery and development. Since we began, our researchers have leveraged what we know about the innate immune system to actualize its untapped, and historically overlooked, potential to fight cancer. NK cells present a major benefit to harnessing the power of the innate immune system, as they possess potent, anti-tumor capabilities and potentially a more tolerable approach to fighting cancer, with the additional benefit of potentially leading to a multi-layered immune response.

Affimed scientists, using our proprietary Redirected Optimized Cell Killing (ROCK®) platform, have generated a pipeline of ICE® molecules that bind to innate immune cells and to a number of different tumor types. Affimed’s ROCK® platform is the most clinically advanced technology platform for designing innate immunity therapeutics for patients with hematologic cancers and solid tumors, aiming to give patients back their innate ability to fight cancer.

Innate immune cells, including NK cells and macrophages, express the cell surface protein CD16A, one of the most potent activating receptors on these types of cells. ICE® molecules bind to CD16A on innate cells, as well as to specific targets on tumor cells, resulting in the ability of ICE® molecules to recruit the body’s own innate immune cells to the site of the tumor. This unique mechanism of action leads to effective and efficient tumor cell killing, mimicking the natural way the body employs innate cells to fight cancer. We are currently evaluating our ICE® molecule acimtamig (AFM13) in combination with allogeneic NK cells in patients with hematologic cancers and developing our ICE® molecule AFM24 in combination with a PD-L1 inhibitor in patients with Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. AFM28 is targets CD123 on leukemic cells and is developed for patients with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.