Photo Credit: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

A new cell-based medicine is offering hope for children suffering from incurable nerve tissue cancer. 

And one person getting very excited about it’s potential is Dr. Karin Straathof, from Great Ormond Street children’s hospital. Her progress with a handful of children of whom standard care doesn’t work, reveals the promise of modern cancer drugs, writes Reuters

Over the past years, the pharmaceutical field has become increasingly crowded, and going forward it is essential that investors try to select future winners. The new therapy using white engineered white blood cells has shown anti-tumour activity in the hardest to treat neuroblastoma patients. 

!The beauty is that it is very specific in targeting the cancer cells while leaving healthy tissue unharmed,” Straathod said. “It’s an important step.”

Autolus, is the small British biotech company who is developing the chimeric antigen receptor T-cell or CAR-T treatment, and are equally excited, and is even planning a potential IPO on Nasdaq. 

However, the company is far away from being alone in pursuing CAR-T therapy. In fact, it is considered as one of the hottest areas of drug research right now, with multiple firms piling in. 

There is a lot of activity in Europe and the United States, but most recently in China, which with 162 clinical trials, now boasts more CAR-T studies than the States, according to a Reuters analysis of the latest data. With over 2,000 drugs in the cancer immunotherapy space, the competition has never been tougher as each firm seeks its own propriety version of often similar drugs. 

Overall, researchers are working on more than 5,200 cancer drugs, up 7.6% from a year ago, according to the Pharmaprojects database. The large volume is stretching the ability of scientists to find enough patients to test them on. 

Cancer now makes up 34.1% of the total drug industry pipeline, up from 26.8% in 2010, as companies divert resources into a promising sector where new treatments can often rack up more than $100,000 a year. 

The reality of this medicine is very real, and life-changing. This was only solidified when the two CAR-T treatments from Novartis and Gilead Sciences won U.S. approval last year for rare blood cancers. 

But such a rush by pharmaceutical and biotech companies does pose a problem for investors. A flood of similar products makes it difficult for investors to pick those companies that will achieve commercial success. 

“More competition means you should be more circumspect,” explained Nooman Haque, head of life sciences at Silicon Valley Bank in London, which provides financing for start-ups and venture capitalists. 

“The traditional investment thesis in biotech is to have a differentiated medicine with not many competitors, which helps drive value. Here the problem is that even if there is a big patient benefit, there are questions as to how long your advantage lasts and what your commercial edge will be.”

CEO of Roche, Severin Schwan, said he expects an “enormous dropout,” while Sanofi’s outgoing research head Elias Zerhouni warned analysts last week that duplication of effort would shrink the time available for drugmakers to recoup their R&D investments. 

“The cycle of innovation has been shortened significantly,” agreed Aiman Shalabi, chief medical officer at the non-profit Cancer Research Institute. “There is no doubt we are seeing fast follow-on and many identical agents hitting the same targets.”

One added bonus is that patients will find out much faster than in the past if new approaches work.But, that does mean that doctors can rapidly switch to alternatives, leading to increased product churn and uncertainty over future sales.