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Discoverers of Groundbreaking New Lung Cancer Treatment Honored as Heroes in Drug Discovery

Students learn about drug discovery process from industry experts

November 2023 – Drew University students and faculty recently attended a lecture by Dr. Sheri Moores and Dr. Sylvie Laquerre describing the development of Amivantamab, a revolutionary new treatment for lung cancer.

The fifth annual Heroes in Drug Discovery event was hosted by Drew’s Research Institute for Scientists Emeriti (RISE), a program that enables Drew students to perform laboratory research with retired industry scientists.

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Dr. Gullo (right) presents the 2023 Heroes in Drug Discovery Award to Dr. Moores (middle) and Dr. Laquerre (left)

Moores and Laquerre, the senior director and vice president of Solid Tumor Discovery at Johnson & Johnson, respectively, received the 2023 Heroes in Drug Discovery award in a ceremony before the lecture.

“When I read about this Amivantamab for lung cancer, I just thought it was a wonderful story—a great science story—and a significant advancement in cancer treatment,” said Dr. Vincent Gullo, director of RISE. “There are other drugs discovered all the time, but this was my favorite as far as the science and the impact on human health and cancer.”

“[Amivantamab] is helping a lot of lung cancer patients,” Moores said, elaborating on the importance of the discovery. “It’s the first bispecific on a solid tumor to be approved, so I think that’s a significant achievement and a step forward.”

Moores and Laquerre alternated speaking throughout the lecture, highlighting their friendship of 20 years as a reason for their success. They also acknowledged the role of the Amivantamab research and development team and clinical trial participants in the drug’s journey to FDA approval in 2023.

Moores and Laquerre began by describing shortcomings in the current standard of care for lung cancer, emphasizing that only five percent of patients survive more than five years after metastasis. Patients with EGFR mutations can be treated with EGFR inhibitors that are more effective than chemotherapy, but tumors eventually develop resistance to these drugs through further mutation of EGFR or the MET-dependent pathway.

In contrast to previously developed treatments, Amivantamab is a bispecific antibody that targets both EGFR and MET. Amivantamab works through three mechanisms: It prevents the binding of ligands to EGFR and MET, induces internal degradation of EGFR and MET and enhances the ability of natural killer immune cells to destroy tumor cells.

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Dr. Moores and Dr. Laquerre take students through the drug discovery process.

After explaining Amivantamab’s mechanism of action, Moores and Laquerre highlighted Amivantamab’s success in pre-clinical and clinical trials. In Phase III clinical trials, the combination of Amivantamab with chemotherapy or EGFR inhibitors led to an increased survival rate compared to the standard of care, a promising development in the treatment of lung cancer. In addition, Moores and Laquerre emphasized the surprising discovery that Amivantamab enables trogocytosis, in which macrophages “nibble” on tumor cell membranes and degrade EGFR and MET receptors.

Moores and Laquerre also described the challenges they confronted as they developed and tested Amivantamab. During their presentation, they mentioned that clinical trials for Amivantamab were initially placed on hold as other drugs were prioritized. In an interview after the lecture, Moores and Laquerre disclosed other obstacles, such as issues with transporting the drug to South Korea for clinical trials, conducting clinical trials during the pandemic and skepticism about the cost of developing the drug.

“A clinical trial is always a pack of challenges,” said Laquerre. “The same thing [is true] in discovery. Those are challenges that we just have to grow with and then roll with the punches because there’s never an easy road.”

In the future, Moores and Laquerre hope to conduct clinical trials with larger populations, develop more efficient methods to deliver Amivantamab, combine Amivantamab with other cancer drugs and extend Amivantamab to colorectal and head and neck cancers.

After the lecture, Moores and Laquerre answered questions from the audience about the frequency of Amivantamab treatment; whether Amivantamab was ineffective against certain EGFR or MET mutations; combining Amivantamab with an antibody-drug conjugate; choosing the three mechanisms of action; and relapse rates after treatment with Amivantamab.

In addition to celebrating scientists for drug discovery efforts, another purpose of the Heroes in Drug Discovery events is to help students learn about the pharmaceutical industry.

To that end, Moores and Laquerre shared their key takeaways from Amivantamab’s development, including the importance of conducting clinical trials, learning from failures, following the science, networking and improving the standard of care until the disease is cured.

When asked for their advice for students in the audience who are interested in drug discovery, Moores and Laquerre emphasized research experience and forming relationships with mentors who have worked in the pharmaceutical industry.

“If you don’t have experience, you don’t know if you would enjoy doing research,” said Moores. “I [developed] a passion for it once I was introduced to it.”

Last year, RISE honored Dr. Dafydd Owen, senior scientific director of medicinal chemistry at Pfizer, for the discovery of the COVID-19 treatment PAXLOVID.

Written by Abigail Goldman C’26, majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology and minoring in data science.

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