MD Anderson experts join new Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy

Unprecedented $250-million collaboration aims to quicken, expand immune assault on cancer

Cancer immunotherapy leaders at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center will work with experts at five other cancer centers in a new alliance funded by the largest single contribution ever made to the field.

The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, created with a $250 million grant from the Parker Foundation, focuses on accelerating progress in the breakthrough field that helps the immune system attack cancers.

“By bringing institutions with different strengths and expertise together, providing stable funding and access to truly cutting-edge technologies, the Parker Institute empowers us to make big strides in cancer immunotherapy,” said Jim Allison, Ph.D., chair of Immunology and executive director of the immunotherapy platform at MD Anderson – an essential component of its Moon Shots Program to more rapidly convert scientific discoveries into life-saving advances.

Allison is director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Also collaborating are Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford Medicine, the University of California, San Francisco, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Pennsylvania.

“We are at an inflection point in cancer research and now is the time to maximize immunotherapy’s unique potential to transform all cancers into manageable diseases, saving millions of lives,” said Sean Parker, President of The Parker Foundation. “We believe that the creation of a new funding and research model can overcome many of the obstacles that currently prevent research breakthroughs. Working closely with our scientists and more than 30 industry partners, the Parker Institute is positioned to broadly disseminate discoveries and, most importantly, more rapidly deliver treatments to patients.”

Each center received initial funding of $10-15 million in the first year to establish the Parker Institute on site. This investment will continue to grow annually via additional project grants, shared resources and central funding.

“We have only scratched the surface of the potential of cancer immunotherapy to save lives,” said MD Anderson President Ronald A. DePinho, M.D. “MD Anderson has invested heavily in immunotherapy, which is a major priority for our Moon Shots Program, and we’re proud to participate in this innovative and collaborative effort to advance the field.”

Allison invented an approach to cancer treatment called immune checkpoint blockade, which involves treating the immune system and freeing it to attack cancer rather than treating tumors directly.

Ipilimumab (Yervoy), a drug based on his research, blocks a brake on white blood cells called T cells, the immune system’s targeted weapons, freeing them to attack cancer.

Yervoy became the first treatment ever shown to extend the survival of people with advanced melanoma. Long-term follow up of the first 5,000 patients to receive the drug showed a 10-year survival rate of 22 percent, unprecedented results. It was approved by federal regulators for advanced melanoma in 2011.

In 2013, Science magazine named cancer immunotherapy its breakthrough of the year and this year the American Association of Clinical Oncology named it the clinical advance of the year. In 2015, new checkpoint inhibitors were approved for advanced lung and kidney cancer. Early clinical trials using genetically modified T cells have yielded powerful results in blood cancers.

“The Parker Institute has chosen three areas of concentration to address issues in these immunotherapies so we can extend them to more patients,” Allison said.

Those priorities are:

  • Developing novel approaches to modify T cells to enhance their function and then develop a new generation of more effective T cell therapie
  •  Comparing patients who respond to checkpoint inhibitors, those who don’t respond and those who relapse, to improve rates of durable responses and broaden the use of these drugs alone or in combination.
  •  Conducting DNA sequencing, immune monitoring and antigen discovery to identify new targets for therapeutic vaccines and T cell therapies.

Five MD Anderson researchers initially will fully participate in the Parker Institute at MD Anderson.  Allison said others can be added and researchers also can participate on a project-by-project basis. In addition to Allison, they are

  • Parker Institute at MD Anderson Co-Director Padmanee Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Genitourinary Medical Oncology and scientific director of the immunotherapy platform. Sharma is a clinician-scientist and immunologist whose research includes identifying and characterizing immune-stimulating molecules and checkpoints as well as understanding response and resistance to treatment.
  • Cassian Yee, M.D., professor of Melanoma Medical Oncology and co-leader of the Adoptive Cell Therapy platform. Yee has developed a method for gathering white blood cells from patients through apheresis, identifying among them the T cells that attack their cancer, expanding those T cells in the lab, and giving them back to patients.
  • Elizabeth Mittendorf, M.D. Ph.D., associate professor of Breast Surgical Oncology. Mittendorf is a surgeon and immunologist who developed therapeutic vaccines to prevent breast cancer recurrence that are in phase 3 clinical trials.
  • Jennifer Wargo, M.D., associate professor of Surgical Oncology and Genomic Medicine. Wargo is a surgeon, immunologist and a translational scientist who has an active research laboratory focused on better understanding patient responses to cancer therapy using longitudinal tissue and blood sampling. She also leads several clinical trials testing novel approaches to improve outcomes for patients with melanoma and other cancers.  

Jeff Bluestone, Ph.D., is CEO and president of the Parker Institute. Bluestone and Allison independently discovered that the CTLA-4 receptor protein on T cells acts as a brake, shutting down activated T cells.

Allison’s insight was to apply this finding to cancer treatment by developing an antibody to block CTLA-4, unleashing a T cell attack on cancer. His mouse model experiments succeeded in a variety of cancers, and he proceeded to propose the approach to pharmaceutical companies.

Allison came to MD Anderson in 2012, launching the immunotherapy platform, funded by $50 million in philanthropic support. MD Anderson researchers are conducting more than 140 immunotherapy clinical trials that include several thousand patients. The platform provides immune monitoring for clinical trials, conducts immunotherapy research and works closely with the moon shots.

MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program was launched in 2012 to accelerate the pace of converting scientific discoveries into life-saving advances in treatment, prevention and early detection. Twelve moon shots — multidisciplinary teams of clinicians and researchers — address more than 20 cancer types. Ten platforms systematically and efficiently provide expertise, technological capacity and infrastructure to the moon shots.