What immunotherapy researchers are reading now

We look at the topics catching specialists’ attention in this rapidly evolving field.

Immunotherapy has revolutionized the treatment of certain types of cancer, but it’s still a burgeoning field. Therapies that have reached the clinic only work for some patients, and researchers are exploring new ways of harnessing the immune system to treat cancer. To get a sense of current trends in this rapidly changing field, we took a look at what immuno-oncology specialists have been reading on ResearchGate.

Reads have an advantage over other metrics, like citations, which can lag behind research trends. In biomedical fields, it takes an average of eight months for research to be published once it’s been submitted to a journal. That’s on top of the time it takes to actually conduct experiments and put together a manuscript. Examining what researchers are reading offers a real-time glimpse into the topics they think are important, months or even years before they publish about them.

For this trend assessment, we focused on the most active researchers in the field—people who’ve published at least four immuno-oncology papers since 2016. The following analysis looks at the 100 recent publications read most by this group in the last six months.

PD-1/PD-L1 is dominating immuno-oncology research consumption

Checkpoint inhibitors, in particular those targeting PD-1 and PD-L1, are clearly dominating what immunotherapy researchers are reading. PD-1 is a checkpoint protein that prevents T cells from attacking other cells in the body. It works when paired with PD-L1, a protein abundant in some cancer cells. Some of the most successful checkpoint inhibiting drugs block either PD-1 or PD-L1 to keep cancer cells from using this mechanism to evade an immune attack.

A full third of the publications on our list are about checkpoint blockades. That’s significantly more than the next most popular immunotherapy type, oncolytic viruses, which feature in only six studies. A vast majority of these—26 publications in total—look specifically at PD-1 or PD-L1 inhibitors, either exclusively or in combination with other therapies.

“PD-1/PD-L1 immune checkpoint blockade has proven to offer patients better outcomes, while the approved use of these antibodies is constantly being expanded to more cancer types,” explained Karolinska Institute’s Ioannis Zerdes, author of a PD-L1 regulation review that appears on the most-read list.

A stand-out trend within checkpoint blockade research an interest in biomarkers. Biomarkers can tell researchers which patients are likely to respond to immunotherapy, and whether or not a therapy is working. About a third of the research looking at checkpoint blockades—10 publications in total—pertains to immunotherapy biomarkers.


Most of the research targets melanoma and brain tumors?

Among the studies looking at a specific type of cancer (just over half of the list), there is a clear focus on melanoma. “Melanoma is the cancer that responds most robustly to immunotherapy, which is likely why it’s so heavily represented here,” said Ashani Weeraratna of the Wistar Institute’s Melanoma Research Center. Weeraratna supervised the second most popular study on our list, which finds that older melanoma patients respond better to anti-PD1 therapies than younger ones.

After melanoma, brain cancers also feature prominently, in particular glioblastoma. “Malignant brain cancer is lethal, with very little progress being made over the past 40 years. In children, it has become the biggest killer. There is a desperate need to develop novel therapies,” explains Maria Castro of the University of Michigan. Castro’s publication examining immunotherapy’s potential to treat glioma has also been popular among immuno-oncology researchers this year. The therapy it discusses is now being tested in a Phase 1 clinical trial.

These institutions are producing the most-read research

In addition to what immuno-oncology researchers are reading, we also looked at who they’re reading. Of the authors contributing to the 100 publications on our list, 34 are affiliated with the University of Texas’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, making it the most represented institution. MD Anderson is widely recognized as a leader in cancer treatment. The German Cancer Research Center ranked second, with 10 authors whose publications appear on the list. ?Also in the top five are the Wistar Institute, National Cancer Institute, and Johns Hopkins Medicine.