Courtesy of Roswell Cancer Talk Blog

Many people think immunotherapy is a recent treatment for cancer patients, but it actually dates back to 1891, when William Coley, a bone sarcoma surgeon at the first U.S. cancer hospital, injected streptococcal organisms into a patient with inoperable cancer. Dr. Coley hoped the infection would jumpstart the man’s immune system, and it worked. The patient’s immune system fought off the infection and his malignant tumor disappeared.

Dr. Coley spent the next 40 years injecting 1,000-plus patients with bacteria called Coley’s Toxins, hoping to achieve the same results. However, his colleagues doubted him and began turning instead to new emerging treatment strategies – radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

“Immunotherapy simply fell out of favor and returned in the last 10 years or so,” says Igor Puzanov, MD, Senior Vice President for Clinical Investigation, Director of the Center for Early Phase Clinical Trials and Chief of the Early Phase Clinical Trials Division, Chief of Melanoma and, The Judith and Stanford Lipsey Endowed Chair in Clinical Cancer Research at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Roswell Park research teams have uncovered how to expand the benefits of immunotherapy for more cancer patients and are exploring more ways to treat cancer types with immunotherapy that have previously not had a long-lasting response to immune-based approaches. Drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors are used to help the immune system’s T-cells fight cancer by manipulating the T-cells’ checkpoints or “inner brakes,” which keep the body’s immune response from being too strong. These new drugs block proteins that would normally suppress T-cells’ immune response against cancer cells. Research teams conduct clinical trials to test how to make these drugs work more effectively by combining them with other treatments.

As part of these efforts, a Roswell Park team led by Pawel Kalinski, MD, PhD, has received a five-year, $14.54 million award from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Funded through the NCI’s Program Project Grant program, the prestigious grant will fund five clinical trials focused on a strategy for making some of the most common immunotherapies work for more patients. The trials will begin this year, and look at metastatic colorectal cancer, checkpoint-resistant advanced melanoma, and advanced ovarian cancer.

“Our goal with this project is to convert cancers that are traditionally checkpoint-resistant into treatable, ‘hot’ tumors so that more patients will be able to benefit from some of the most commonly prescribed immunotherapies,” explains Dr. Kalinski, Jacobs Family Endowed Chair in Immunology, Chief of the Division of Translational Immuno-Oncology and Senior Vice President for Team Science.

Other related clinical trials at Roswell Park involve patients with breast cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Many are being conducted to explore how to make radiation therapy an effective companion to immunotherapy. The ultimate goal of all of this work is to expand “the population of patients who can be treated with immunotherapy,” according to Dr. Puzanov, who adds, “We will continue to find out how to make immunotherapy work for more people, because it saves lives.”

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