Trillium Therapeutics (TRIL) climbed 1,330% last year, but unlike most of its soaring biotech stock peers, its business has nothing to do with fighting the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. It's an oncology specialist. And another banner year for investors could be coming in 2021 as the company gets more data from its cancer-fighting candidates and works toward a long-term goal of replacing a common method to treat the disease.

A cancer patient receiving an infusion with a nurse sitting beside her.

Image source: Getty Images

In a league of its own

Human cells have a certain protein on their surface that signals to the immune system not to attack them. Nearly all cancers boost this protein, called CD47, to protect themselves and avoid detection. In March, Gilead (GILD 0.29%) purchased Forty Seven, a biotech company that had a drug that interferes with the cancerous cells' ability to use this trick, opening them up to attack by the immune system. That treatment, Magrolimab, is used in combination with chemotherapy. 

Trillium isn't the only other company attempting to use this approach to fight cancer, but its treatment candidates have proven more effective with each higher dose level. They also offer one reason to be especially excited. Trillium is the only company whose CD47-inhibiting candidates have achieved complete remission in some clinical trial patients as stand-alone treatments.

When will we know

Investors are eager for updates about Trillium Therapeutics' candidates, and they won't have to wait long. Management will meet with analysts by the end of the first quarter, when they will offer fresh data, clarification of disease priorities, and a high-level clinical plan charting the path forward. 

While acknowledging the company needs to take a disciplined approach, CEO Jan Skvarka has talked of its products eventually challenging chemotherapy as the dominant type of cancer treatment. Trillium shareholders had a great run in 2020, but if its cancer treatment platform continues to show efficacy, the story could be just beginning.