Cancer remains one of the most difficult and deadly challenges in human health, affecting Kentuckians at a higher rate than residents of any other state and killing more than 600,000 people each year in the U.S. alone. In recent decades, therapies that engage the immune system to treat cancer have given hope to millions of cancer patients.
Building on more than two decades of success in cancer research, the University of Louisville is poised to advance immunotherapy with a grant of $11.5 million from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to establish the Center for Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy (CCII). The new center will develop and improve strategies that use the immune response to fight cancer. The five-year grant also will allow UofL to establish the CCII as a National Institutes of Health-designated Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (CoBRE) to support young investigators and develop additional basic, translational and clinical research at the UofL Health – James Graham Brown Cancer Center.
“One of the university’s Grand Challenges is to advance the health of all people,” said UofL President Neeli Bendapudi. “Through this center, our cancer researchers will grow the field of immunotherapy, saving the lives of many more patients with cancer in the future.”
“Our mission is to harness the power of the immune system to eradicate cancer,” said Jason Chesney, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Brown Cancer Center. “The University of Louisville, UofL Health and the Brown Cancer Center have been at the forefront of the clinical development of a new generation of immunotherapies that have been proven to increase the survival of cancer patients. This grant from the federal government leverages our existing strengths in cancer immunology and clinical trials to accelerate the development of new immunotherapies that will translate into lives saved across the globe.”
Cancer survivor Jeff Habermel received two different immunotherapies at Brown Cancer Center in the course of treatment for three different cancers, including metastasized melanoma.
“I consider myself very fortunate to have the type of care that Dr. Chesney and Dr. (Donald) Miller and the whole staff provide at the Brown Cancer Center. We have a world-class facility right in our backyard,” Habermel said. “I truly feel I am the luckiest man in the world to live in a time when we have such technologies and such amazing abilities to treat cancer in these ways.”
The newest cancer treatments often are available at Brown Cancer Center through clinical trials before they are available anywhere else. One such treatment is CAR T-cell therapy, in which a patient’s own immune cells known as T cells are modified in the lab to more effectively attack cancer cells. UofL announced the creation of the Dunbar CAR T-Cell Program at UofL in October.
“Our leading-edge cancer program improves access for patients in our region, giving them the opportunity to benefit from life-saving immunotherapies through clinical trials,” said Tom Miller, CEO of UofL Health. “Thousands of our cancer patients – our neighbors and family members – are alive today because of this early focus on drugs that activate immunity against cancer.”
Researchers within the CCII will build on expertise and resources gained from previous research at UofL to develop better cancer immunotherapies. This will be achieved in part by enabling talented junior investigators who have not yet obtained major funding to advance their research and subsequently obtain major grant awards of their own.
“One of the major goals of the center is to cultivate the next generation of cancer scientists in immunology and immunotherapy,” said Jun Yan, M.D., Ph.D., professor, director of the CCII and chief of the UofL Division of Immunotherapy. “Starting in year two, we will call for pilot projects that will bring in more researchers and investigators to work on immunotherapy and immunology.”
The young researchers are provided funding, mentorship and access to sophisticated facilities to advance their research. Once CCII-supported researchers obtain their own funding they rotate out, allowing new investigators to come in to the program.
“It’s training a cohort of new investigators who will have their own large grants and expertise,” said Paula Bates, Ph.D., professor of medicine and co-investigator for the CCII along with John Trent, Ph.D. “We are building a critical mass of well-funded researchers in the area.”
Senior UofL faculty members Robert Mitchell, Ph.D., Nejat Egilmez, Ph.D., Haribabu Bodduluri, Ph.D., Huang-Ge Zhang, Ph.D., and Bing Li, Ph.D., will serve as mentors and core directors for the CCII. In the first year of the program, four junior researchers at UofL are conducting projects to improve the effectiveness of immune therapies.
- Chuanlin Ding, Ph.D., is investigating the impact of chemotherapy on anti-tumor immunity in breast cancer order to discover effective combination regimens that improve conventional chemotherapy.
- Qingsheng Li, Ph.D., is exploring a method to improve immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy for non-small cell lung cancer. Immune checkpoint inhibitors are a type of immunotherapy that blocks proteins (checkpoints) made by immune system cells, such as T cells. The checkpoints can prevent T cells from attacking cancer cells.
- Corey Watson, Ph.D., is studying immune cells to determine which of these cells are beneficial to lung cancer patient outcomes and how they may help kill tumor cells.
- Kavitha Yaddanapuddi, Ph.D., is studying immune checkpoint inhibitor resistance in lung cancer patients. This will help in developing therapies that reduce resistance and improve treatment.
This grant may be extended for two additional five-year phases. A previous CoBRE program for cancer research at UofL was extended through all three phases, lasting 15 years. That program significantly expanded the contingent of both junior and senior investigators at UofL, including Chesney, Trent and others whose research was funded by the previous program.
“This type of funding has been truly transformative for this cancer center,” Trent said. “The research for the current generation of immunotherapeutic checkpoint inhibitors was done more than 18 years ago. This grant’s research will feed into the clinical work in time. These grants lay the groundwork for the next generation of therapies.”
To extend the impact of the CCII still further, Kosair Charities has provided an additional $200,000 to facilitate the discovery and development of immunotherapy drugs for children with cancer. This gift bridges the CCII and the UofL Kosair Charities Pediatric Oncology Research Program, allowing the CCII to focus also on immuno-oncology for children.
“Kosair Charities is proud to be the first community partner to support the UofL Center for Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy,” said Kosair Charities President Keith Inman. “The UofL Kosair Charities Pediatric Cancer Research Program will allow this new center to include crucial pediatric cancer research as well as expand the scope to all people living with cancer – children and adults alike.”