Florencia McAllister receives TAMEST Mary Beth Maddox Award for pancreatic tumor microbiome research

Florencia McAllister, M.D., associate professor of Clinical Cancer Prevention, Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology and Immunology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has been awarded the 2023 Mary Beth Maddox Award and Lectureship in cancer research from the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering, Science and Technology (TAMEST).

McAllister is being honored for her pioneering research on the intra-tumoral bacteria detected in long-term pancreatic cancer survivors and the discovery of a gut-tumor axis that inspired the use of fecal microbial transplants to improve therapy outcomes.

The Mary Beth Maddox Award and Lectureship recognizes women scientists in Texas who bring new ideas and innovations to the fight against cancer. The award was established in 2022 in honor of Mary Beth Maddox, former executive director of TAMEST, who passed away in 2018 after a valiant battle with pancreatic cancer.

“It is a great honor for me to receive this special award and for our team to be recognized for its work to improve pancreatic cancer prevention and treatment by altering the tumor immune microenvironment,” McAllister said. “There have been exciting findings, but we have a lot of work ahead to continue to bring these advances to patients with pancreatic cancer.”

McAllister currently leads the MD Anderson Pancreatic Cancer Genetics/High Risk Clinic and is a co-leader of the Pancreatic Cancer Moon Shot Program ®, part of MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program®, a collaborative effort designed to accelerate the development of scientific discoveries into clinical advances that save patients’ lives.

McAllister’s basic and translational research explores the interactions between the immune and microbial components in processes of cancer initiation, progression and therapy resistance. Specifically, she integrates the biology of the tumor microenvironment and microbes to modulate the immune system against cancer.

Her work detailed the role of intra-tumoral bacteria and unraveled the existence of a gut-tumor microbial axis, which can be utilized to regulate the pancreatic tumor microenvironment. She has outlined the unique microbes that distinguish the few pancreatic cancer patients with long-term survival. Furthermore, her laboratory determined possibilities for exploiting the gut-tumor microbial axis for therapeutic purpose. These seminal research findings were published in Cell in 2019.

Based on this concept, McAllister launched the first Phase 0 clinical trial to modulate tumor microbiomes through fecal microbial transfer (FMT) in patients undergoing surgical resection of primary tumors. She also launched a preclinical platform that allows for parallel studies in animals using the same FMT product that goes into patients to further dissect the role of FMT in cancer therapeutic resistance.

These accomplishments illustrate the capacity for MD Anderson researchers to rapidly advance discoveries from the lab into the clinic while also using clinical insights to inform ongoing laboratory work. With seamless collaboration between scientists and clinicians, MD Anderson’s research environment enables progress at an unmatched speed.

“Dr. McAllister is a true leader in the field of tumor microbiome and immune microenvironment, and this award speaks to her important discoveries that have improved our knowledge of this deadly cancer,” said Giulio Draetta, M.D., Ph.D., chief scientific officer. “Her commitment to impactful team science already has resulted in treatment advances and will continue to improve the lives of patients with pancreatic cancer.”

McAllister’s work on the tumor microenvironment and immune-interception unraveled mechanisms involved in specific T cells, called Th17 cells, with relevance not only for pancreatic cancer and other malignancies, but also for autoimmune diseases and tissue regeneration. More recently, she discovered that Th17 cells promote the formation of neutrophils extracellular traps, meant to stop bacteria expansion, to maintain immunosuppression in advanced pancreatic cancer, a pathway that can be targeted to restore sensitivity to immunotherapies.

McAllister will be officially presented with the award at the TAMEST 2023 Annual Conference: Forward Texas – Accelerating Change, on May 24. In addition, she will give a presentation at the conference and promote her work and discoveries across the state through a series of subsequent lectures at National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers.

“I am proud to have nominated Dr. McAllister for this award so that she may be recognized for her basic and translational research to improve care for cancer patients,” said Ronald DePinho, M.D., professor of Cancer Biology. “She is well known for addressing complex questions with out-of-the-box thinking, and I can’t wait to continue to follow her impact on our knowledge of microbes, the immune system and cancer.”