Approaching thoracic cancers from different angles

Head of oncology clinical development, Sabine Maier, M.D. on BMS’ research and commitment to progress for patients with diseases like lung cancer and mesothelioma

July 30, 2020     

When Sabine Maier, M.D., completed her medical studies at Ulm University in Germany, she never expected that her career would one day lead her to the cutting-edge of thoracic cancer research.

Sabine Maier, M.D., head of oncology clinical development, BMS

Sabine Maier, M.D., head of oncology clinical development, BMS

After her residency in internal medicine, Dr. Maier decided to pursue a position with a small biotech, developing cancer screening tests. That initial experience sparked what would become a lifelong passion for oncology research and development and, ultimately, a specialty in lung cancer.

“I was first drawn to Bristol Myers Squibb by the breadth of the company’s oncology pipeline and the opportunity to investigate new options that might benefit patients,” said Dr. Maier.

Nearly 15 years after joining the company, Dr. Maier has become a prominent voice in lung cancer research and played an important role in BMS’ leadership in advancing the treatment paradigm for patients with this disease, as well as other thoracic cancers like mesothelioma, and head and neck cancer. She now oversees all oncology clinical development.

Understanding – and Addressing – an Intractable Diseases

Every patient with cancer is different – from the biology of their tumor to the treatment modality, or modalities, that could best address their needs. This understanding has evolved significantly over the last several decades, and today, it is at the core of BMS’ thoracic cancer research strategy. 

In the first few years after Dr. Maier left medical school, the outlook for patients with lung cancer remained bleak. At that time, the disease frequently went undetected until it was in its most advanced stages, and treatment options were limited to chemotherapy and radiation. 

A pivotal moment in the evolution of the therapeutic landscape occurred in the 2000s with the discovery of different gene mutations – or changes – on lung cancer cells, and the development of therapies capable of targeting them.

“The introduction of targeted treatment substantially changed the outcomes for some lung cancer patients,” said Dr. Maier. “This signified important progress for many, but it was really only relevant for patients carrying specific driver mutations, and an unmet need persisted among the majority of patients with lung cancer.” 

Then, in the late 2000s, researchers began to see promising results with a new approach: immunotherapy. After early trials showed potential in cancers like melanoma, Dr. Maier and her colleagues started to explore this new modality in lung and other thoracic cancers.

“Immunotherapy research looks at how to harness the body’s immune system to fight cancer, with the goal of improving long-term survival and quality of life for patients,” said Dr. Maier. “By following what ultimately became Nobel Prize-winning science, we’ve learned a great deal about treating lung cancer in recent years, after a period when any progress was elusive.”

Research into the biology of cancer has uncovered numerous pathways that may be involved in the immune system’s ability to eliminate tumor cells. Ongoing studies are evaluating how targeting different combinations of these pathways may have a synergistic effect in addressing a variety of cancer types, including lung cancer.

Dr. Maier continued, “Perhaps what is most important in the landscape now, with the availability of chemo, targeted and immuno-therapies, is that we have a spectrum of treatment modalities with potential in this area, giving physicians the ability to tailor treatment and combination decisions to address the needs of their patients.”

Learn more about thoracic cancers, their global incidence and potential risk factors: lung cancer infographic and mesothelioma infographic.

Envisioning a Brighter Future for Thoracic Cancer Patients

Even with recent strides in lung cancer research, there still remains more to do, as not every patient sees a benefit from currently approved treatment options in lung cancer. From Dr. Maier’s perspective, key areas of focus for the next wave of development include increasing long-term survival, finding options that work for more patients and intercepting the disease before it progresses.

“Immunotherapy has become an important treatment option in later settings of certain types of lung cancer, but if we can use immunotherapy agents even earlier in a patient’s treatment regimen, perhaps we can improve his or her outcomes,” said Dr. Maier.

Dr. Maier is also energized by BMS’ research in mesothelioma, a rare but aggressive form of cancer that forms in the lining of the lungs. She finds that the situation facing many mesothelioma patients today is reminiscent of what she encountered in lung cancer earlier in her career, as the community has not seen a new systemic treatment option in more than 15 years. 

“Patients with malignant plural mesothelioma have seen limited advances in their treatment options over the past decade, so a better understanding of the potential of immunotherapy agents to treat this devastating disease represents significant and long-awaited progress for these patients,” said Dr. Maier.

Up to the Challenge

Dr. Maier recognizes that she and her team may encounter setbacks along the way as they work to advance the next generation of therapies. After all, failure is often a part of clinical research, particularly when pioneering new approaches in difficult-to-treat diseases like lung cancer and mesothelioma. 

Regardless of any possible challenges, the fact that patients are awaiting new treatment options means that Dr. Maier never loses her motivation.

“When I first started with BMS, I did not necessarily have a personal connection to the thoracic cancer space. But here we are nearly fifteen years later, and these diseases remain so pervasive and so prevalent, I have seen first-hand among my close friends how devastating it can be,” said Dr. Maier. “That connection and understanding drives myself, and all of us at BMS, every day.”

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