Unlocking the Potential of Checkpoint Inhibition

Like many drugs today, pembrolizumab (Keytruda) was the result of a group effort. Here, we catch up with two scientists who shaped the destiny of the biotherapeutic at very different stages in its development.


At a Glance

International non-proprietary name (INN): Pembrolizumab
Brand name: Keytruda
Previous name: MK-3475, lambrolizumab
Developed by: Organon (acquired by Schering-Plough in 2007)
Marketed by: Merck & Co/MSD (merged with Schering-Plough in 2009)
Drug class: PD-1 inhibitor

Approval status: Approved in USA for advanced melanoma patients already treated with ipilimumab in September 2014 with an expanded indication granted in December 2015 for patients with unresectable or metastatic melanoma, and in October 2015 for treatment of patients with metastatic PD-L1-positive non-small cell lung cancer. In Europe, it has been recommended for the treatment of unresectable or metastatic melanoma since May 2015.

The Human Touch

David Matthews is associate director of biotherapeutics at MRC Technology. We spoke with Matthews to find out how MRC Technology helped the drug’s inventors take the first steps towards human trials.

Why is pembrolizumab important?

Firstly, it is active in hitherto very difficult-to-treat cancers, in some cases inducing complete remission, which is amazing. Secondly, it was the first successful PD-1 pathway inhibitor and one of the first checkpoint inhibitors. It’s a game-changing approach, and has opened our eyes to the possibility of targeting more cancers using similar mechanisms. The pharmaceutical industry is now putting a lot of investment and effort into understanding the pathways involved and hopefully coming up with more checkpoint inhibitors that can target more cancers.

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