How cancer immunotherapy works
February 12, 2019
Immunotherapy leader details ongoing expansion of cancer treatment's reach
BY MD Anderson staff
In October 2018, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Jim Allison, Ph.D., chair of Immunology, for his discoveries on the biology of T cells, which launched the field of cancer immunotherapy. This new treatment approach, which stimulates the immune system to attack cancer, has saved the lives of many patients with a wide variety of cancer types.
Unfortunately, immunotherapy is not equally effective in all patients or all cancer types. MD Anderson’s immunotherapy platform is working to better understand the reasons behind this and extend the benefits of immunotherapy to more patients. The platform is one of 10 helping to drive the work of MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program™, a collaborative effort to accelerate the development of scientific discoveries into clinical advances that save patients’ lives.
The platform is led by Allison and Padmanee Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Genitourinary Medical Oncology and Immunology. Sharma spoke with Cancer Frontline to share more about the platform’s extensive immunotherapy research and support of MD Anderson investigators to continue expanding the impact of immune-based treatments.
In part one of the interview, Sharma explains how the platform benefits the mission of the Moon Shots Program, how the Moon Shots™ benefit her research and what’s unique about her immunotherapy investigations. In part two, she discusses advances made so far by the platform, including a greater understanding of immune checkpoint therapies' complex biology and important collaborations with the Moon Shots targeting melanoma, prostate and pancreatic cancers.
Q: How is the immunotherapy platform advancing the Moon Shots Program mission of saving patients’ lives?
Sharma: Currently available immunotherapies, such as anti-CTLA4, provide lasting cures to a subset of patients with specific cancers. With the platform, we are working to identify the patients most likely to benefit from current treatments and determine the mechanisms of resistance in others.
We then use what we learn from our patients to identify new immunotherapies or combinations of existing therapies to make this a useful treatment option for more patients.
With our unique team of clinicians, scientists and bioinformaticians, we perform cutting-edge laboratory testing on tumor and blood samples taken from patients treated on immunotherapy clinical trials. The data we generate allows us to then conduct computational analyses to identify biomarkers that predict treatment response and generate new hypotheses that we use to guide our laboratory experiments.
Q: How is your work enabled by your integration with the Moon Shots Program and the research infrastructure at MD Anderson?
Sharma: The proximity to our patients helps provide inspiration and reminds us of the purpose of our work. We are literally saving lives here.
Being established within the world’s largest cancer center facilitates our frequent interaction between clinicians, physician scientists and laboratory scientists, which is needed to achieve the unique model to immunotherapy research we are undertaking.
We conduct our research in close collaboration with the Moon Shots™ disease sites and platforms, as well as colleagues across the institution, so that we can focus on meeting the urgent needs identified by our clinicians across disease sites.
Success in our work requires sampling a large number of patients and some of the state-of-the art assays require samples that have to be fresh and are time-sensitive. Simply put, we couldn’t conduct the same caliber of research without the collaboration of our Moon Shots colleagues and the extensive network of world-class physicians at MD Anderson.
By virtue of this, we also have been able to establish 10 pharmaceutical alliances, a collaboration with the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy and multiple projects with other academic institutions.
Q: How is your model of immunotherapy research unique?
Sharma: We believe that bringing new immunotherapies from the lab to the clinic doesn’t have to be a one-way street. Our platform is designed to make the whole process a circle that continuously improves the treatments that we bring to our patients in clinic and cancer immunotherapy research going on in our labs. We view this process as both translational research from bench to bedside and reverse translation from clinic to lab.
Our team is governed by strong leadership and committees to oversee all aspects of the research being performed, with solid infrastructure and rigorous regulations in place. These provide the backbone for seamless translation from bench-to-bedside and vice versa.
This unique collaborative effort is science-driven, which provides real-time monitoring of patients on immunotherapy trials across several institutional departments, academic centers, and pharmaceutical partners. Lessons learned from our data lead to translation of novel trials and therapies to patients at a relatively quicker pace, which is extremely difficult to attain in an academic research center.
Read part 2 of the interview here.