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Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY), Merck NYSE: MRK), and Roche’s Genentech unit have racked up approvals in cancers of the skin, lung, bladder, head, and neck. In the process, they’ve invigorated the field of immunotherapy, but also revealed their own limitations. Checkpoint blockers still only work for a fraction of patients, and will likely need help from other drugs to boost their effectiveness. That’s why Bristol and Merck, for instance, have a slew of combination trials underway pairing their checkpoint blockers with other drugs.
Cancer vaccines are a possible pairing partner for checkpoint drugs as well, and that’s where Peoples sees an opportunity. He’s developed a vaccine with Elios Therapeutics, an Austin, TX-based biotech that is owned by Orbis Health Solutions, of Greenville, SC. Elios is studying the vaccine in one trial currently, and expects to start two more by the end of the year.
“There’s just a natural marriage between checkpoint inhibitors and vaccines,” he says. “Everything scientifically lines up to show this synergistic effect.”
Peoples isn’t the only one with this idea. He co-authored an article in the Expert Review of Clinical Immunology in June that cited 18 ongoing trials where vaccines are being studied with checkpoint inhibitors. One, for example, is a Phase 2 study combining a vaccine from Seattle-based Immune Design (NASDAQ: IMDZ) with a checkpoint inhibitor from Genentech.
A Long-Term View
Despite all the past failures suffered by cancer vaccines, Peoples still believes they can and will work. He said Dendreon’s journey epitomizes the field’s progress: For every good, there’s a bad.
That can take its toll, as Peoples can attest. It was easy to be motivated in the Army and on the battlefield saving lives, or performing a successful surgery and getting personal feedback from patients and families, he says. Research lacks the same immediacy. And the failures are easy to come by.
“I know it’s a bigger picture and a longer-term view, and I’ve already said I have that view. But you oftentimes don’t get the immediate feedback and successes of doing it,” Peoples says. “I just want to find the right place for cancer vaccines to make an impact.”
Family has been instrumental in helping him push forward, he says. He has five children. His wife, Kathy, is a former professor with degrees in business and early child development, who let go of her career to support the family at home. [Corrects spelling of Kathy’s name.]
“Having that family foundation, it’s really kind of the rock that everything else is built on. My wife is a saint,” Peoples says. “I was deployed seven times, gone for three and a half years. All of a sudden, everything falls on her. Without her, I don’t know what I would do.”