Steve Reed knew he’d had enough of chemotherapy when he stopped being able to enjoy life. The 77-year-old hydrogeologist had been living with metastatic prostate cancer since 1998 and had beaten the odds many times over thanks to a mix of treatments, including surgery, radiotherapy and pharmaceuticals — and, he says, a positive attitude. “My wife and I live in the present and don’t really think about whether I have six months or six years.”

But, after undergoing 18 cycles of chemotherapy, Reed finally seemed to be reaching his limit. He had become increasingly fatigued and felt generally unwell. He also lost sensation in his hands and feet. “When you can’t feel the ground with your feet, it’s a little hard to balance,” he says. Reed had to give up gardening at his home in Port Townsend, Washington, and could no longer go hiking in the nearby mountains. He and his wife cancelled a holiday to Newfoundland in Canada.

In January 2023, Reed and his oncologist agreed that chemotherapy was now doing him more harm than good. However, to Reed’s surprise, the physician paired that grim assessment with the news that there might be one more option available: a new drug called Pluvicto (177Lu-PSMA-617), which was approved for metastatic prostate cancer just the year before. Reed’s physician told him that the drug might be able to buy him more time — and, most importantly, it would probably do so without significant side effects.

Reed was transferred to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, Washington, one of the only hospitals that could administer the drug. Physicians there explained that Pluvicto is a theranostic treatment — an approach that uses specially designed molecules to first find and bind to specific biomarkers on cancer cells, wherever they might be, and then enter the tumour cell. Radioisotopes attached to the molecules then deliver radiation directly into the cancer cells, damaging the DNA inside and killing them.

Reed started on Pluvicto in January this year. The procedure consists of a 15-minute intravenous infusion of the drug followed by a 15-minute infusion of a saline solution. He has undergone three sessions so far and says he has experienced “virtually no side effects”, apart from mild fatigue in the two or three days after.

Reed knows the treatment he is receiving is not curative; nothing is, for someone who has such an advanced stage of the disease. But for now, it has given him his life back. He and his wife visited California between his treatment sessions and are planning to travel to see their three children in the summer.

Pluvicto is the latest in just a handful of theranostic drugs that have been granted approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But despite the limited offerings, over the past couple of years, theranostics has become one of the fastest growing fields of oncology. “The fact that we have recent approvals of drugs that actually prolong survival is a big game changer for nuclear medicine,” says Delphine Chen, director of molecular imaging and therapy at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.

Blue reactor core at Univ. Missouri glows with a blue light

The University of Missouri Research Reactor makes a radioisotope used in cancer treatment.Credit: Curators of Univ. Missouri

Prostate cancer is highly lethal in its metastatic form. It is the eighth most common cause of cancer death globally, accounting for nearly 400,000 fatalities worldwide each year. The large demand for the drug contributed to Pluvicto’s success following FDA approval. Last year, sales rose by 261% and the drug generated nearly US$1 billion. This was a proof of concept for the field and helped to catalyse an explosion of theranostics research across a range of cancers, from renal cell carcinoma to leukaemia. “We are being approached left and right to participate in clinical trials,” says Chen.

At the same time, high-profile business acquisitions are igniting the theranostics industry. In December, RayzeBio, a small theranostics company in San Diego, California, was bought by the global pharmaceutical firm Bristol Myers Squibb based in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, for $4.1 billion. “This was for a company that had nothing on the market,” says Oliver Sartor, a medical oncologist and translational researcher at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “That gets people’s attention.”

Theranostics have been used mainly as palliative treatments for people in the late stages of a few diseases. But as research progresses, the hope is that the efficacy of theranostics will become “better and better”, Sartor says. “One FDA approval will be followed by others.”

Two-pronged approach

The term theranostics comes from the two potential uses of these drugs, also known as radiopharmaceuticals. They can be both a diagnostic and a therapeutic tool, depending on which radioisotope is attached to a molecule that binds to a cancer cell.

Radiopharmaceuticals work by seeking out unique biological markers on the surface of cancer cells — usually receptors or enzymes. Once they encounter their target, they bind to it and are taken up by the cell. Because every type of tumour has its own distinct set of biological targets, theranostics could, in theory, be extended to most types of cancer.

A physician using a theranostic drug will usually first seek to image a person’s tumours using radiopharmaceuticals with attached isotopes that produce γ-rays, which can be detected in PET (positron emission tomography) scans. As well as allowing the physician to see where a person’s cancer is located, the density of matching receptors in cancer cells or tissues can also be used to predict their response to treatment with drugs that use the same targeting mechanism.

If imaging confirms that there is enough expression of the biological target in question to qualify the person for treatment, then physicians move on to the therapy part of the process. Radiopharmaceuticals are administered again, only this time they are carrying isotopes designed to destroy cancer cells. Most emit β-particles, which travel, on average, 0.23 millimetres through the tissue, damaging DNA as they go. This half of the theranostics equation is sometimes referred to as radioligand therapy or radionuclide therapy.

The two main theranostic drugs on the market are Pluvicto and Lutathera (lutetium Lu 177 dotatate), both of which are manufactured by Novartis, a pharmaceutical company based in Basel, Switzerland. Lutathera, which was approved in 2018, targets a cell-surface receptor on neuroendocrine tumours, a type of cancer that is often found in the gastrointestinal tract. Few other effective treatments exist for these tumours worldwide. In Phase III trials for Lutathera, people in the treatment group had a 79% lower risk of disease progression or death at 20 months, compared with the control group1.

Pluvicto targets a highly expressed surface protein on prostate cancer cells called prostate-specific membrane antigen (PSMA). In Phase III trials of Pluvicto, participants in the treatment group survived for a median of 15.3 months — 4 months longer than those in the control group2.

Two body scans showing left with more black markers and right with less markers.

Scans from before (left) and after radioligand therapy show regression of prostate cancer.Credit: Ref. 2

So far, these drugs have been approved only for people with advanced-stage cancer who have not been helped by conventional treatments and have little chance of being cured. “I wish they were curative, but they are not,” says Ayse Tuba Kendi, a nuclear radiologist at Mayo Clinic. “They’re not a silver bullet.”

But theranostic treatments can give people like Reed more quality time, mainly free from negative side effects. “The greatest strengths of these treatments come from what the patients are telling us,” says Amir Iravani, a nuclear-medicine physician at the University of Washington in Seattle. “It improves their quality of life rather than causing it to decline.”

The (medical) nuclear age

The hope is that theranostic therapies will eventually become available for people with earlier-stage disease, Chen says. In those best-case scenarios, theranostics could be more effective — even curative.

Phase III trials in which Pluvicto is given to participants before other interventions are now under way. Sartor, who co-led the original Pluvicto clinical-trial research team, is working on a trial to test the drug’s effectiveness in people with metastatic prostate cancer who have not received chemotherapy. He expects to present the results to the FDA later this year.

Researchers are also exploring whether Lutathera and Pluvicto can be used to treat other types of tumour in which cells express the biomarkers that the drugs are designed to target. In a 2023 study, for example, researchers found that the PSMA target that Pluvicto binds to on prostate cancer cells is also expressed by 91% of triple-negative breast cancer cells3 — a rare and aggressive type of breast cancer that can be difficult to treat. In in vitro experiments reported in the same paper, radiopharmaceuticals targeting PSMA destroyed some triple-negative breast cancer cells.

Other research focuses on ways to make existing treatments more personalized, which could improve efficacy. As things stand, “at some stage, the disease becomes resistant to treatment”, says Iravani. One approach to solving this is to increase the dose of radiopharmaceuticals that people receive over a period of time4; another is to expand the number of targets that radiopharmaceuticals home in on. What’s more, Iravani says, theranostics could be combined with other treatments — such as hormone therapy, immunotherapy or external beam radiation — to produce synergistic results and increase efficacy5. Various phase II trials are testing this now.

Finally, some groups are focused on developing new isotopes, Sartor says. This includes isotopes that emit α-radiation rather than β-radiation. It would be desirable to use α-emitters because of the higher amounts of cancer-killing energy they can deposit in malignant tissue, Iravani says, which could boost their effectiveness.

There are also efforts under way to make theranostic treatments even more personalized than they already are. Some researchers, for example, are working on a mathematical and artificial-intelligence approach that combines anatomical and physiological data, knowledge about radiopharmaceuticals and data from individuals — including theranostic imaging of their cancer cells — to build computer models that try to recreate a specific person’s biology. Such ’digital twins’ would allow physicians to determine the best plan of treatment for individuals by simulating how their particular disease would respond to radiopharmaceuticals on the basis of their blood flow, the number of binding sites in their tumour and more, says Gerhard Glatting, a medical-radiation physicist at Ulm University in Germany.

Digital twins are not yet ready to be deployed, Glatting says. Researchers need to ramp up the amount and the quality of information that they collect from participants and clinical trials, as well as general data on human biology and disease, to use as inputs to create these models. The methods that will analyse these data to produce customized treatment plans also still need work, but Glatting hopes that they will be refined in the next few years. “I am optimistic that the challenges will be overcome to realize the full potential of digital twins in the future,” he says.

Promise and pitfalls

A number of challenges could impede development and delivery of theranostics. For one, the drugs are subject to time pressure. Their radioactive components have half-lives of just hours to days, depending on the product. If they are delivered to people too late, they will be less effective. “There are some real supply-chain issues when you’re selling what I call ‘ripe tomatoes’,” Sartor says. “You’ve got to manufacture your drug, label it, do quality controls, ship it and deliver it to the patient before it goes bad.”

This vulnerability came to the fore last year, when problems with Novartis’ supply chain caused orders of the newly approved Pluvicto drug to be delayed. It took several months for the company to smooth things out. “People assumed a well-resourced company like Novartis would be able to deliver the drug on time,” Sartor says. Its failure was a humbling surprise.

In January, Novartis opened a manufacturing facility in Indianapolis, Indiana, dedicated to producing radiopharmaceuticals. Although physicians in the United States now have ready access to Pluvicto, most theranostics efforts are yet to leave the laboratory and face a challenge to scale up production. “I can make a hamburger in my kitchen,” says Sartor, “but that’s a little different than saying I’m going to feed hamburgers to the world.”

There’s also a problem of scarcity, especially for potential drugs that would rely on α-emitters. Only a few companies produce these isotopes. Even at the clinical-trial stage, researchers are already running into problems trying to obtain enough α-emitters, Iravani says. Ramping up supply will require investment from large companies, which will take time. “The hope is that within the next ten years, production improves,” Iravani says.

Getting these therapies to those who need them is another issue. More clinics need to be established to administer theranostic treatments, and the drugs themselves are expensive. Pluvicto costs around $48,000 per dose and Lutathera is priced around $59,000 — and each recipient requires six or four doses, respectively. This steep barrier to obtaining radiopharmaceuticals has limited their access mainly to people in the United States who have good health insurance, as well as to people in some other wealthy countries.

Despite these obvious hurdles, the field continues to make progress. Compared with just a few years ago, scientists today are better able to identify targets on cancer cells and design molecules to bind to them. Researchers also have a better understanding of tumour biology and isotope function. “We’re just smarter today than we were yesterday,” Sartor says.

Funding for theranostics, which has long lagged behind other areas of cancer research, is growing, too. In 2023, the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging, a non-profit organization based in Reston, Virginia, launched the Mars Shot Fund, an initiative to raise $100 million to support innovative research in the field. Commercial investment is also increasing. In December, in addition to the Bristol Myers Squibb buyout of RayzeBio, the US drug manufacturer Eli Lilly in Indianapolis, Indiana, acquired a small radiopharmaceutical company — Indianapolis-based POINT Biopharma — for $1.4 billion. And in March, AstraZeneca, a drug firm in Cambridge, UK, announced that it would buy the drug-development company Fusion Pharmaceuticals in Hamilton, Canada, for $2 billion.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s now “a vision for how this approach can be used across multiple cancers”, Sartor says. “People can see the future unfolding in a way that wasn’t evident just a couple years ago.”

After receiving his third theranostic infusion in March, Reed’s physicians came back with encouraging news: he has so few prostate cancer cells left to target that the team is “recommending I take a hiatus and go into monitoring mode”, he says. He and his wife are planning to take advantage of the downtime to travel overseas. “We’d like to do a river cruise in Europe,” he says.