PHILADELPHIA - Two doctors in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have been awarded Immuno-Oncology Innovative Research Grants (IRG) by Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C). Michael Farwell, MD, an assistant professor of Radiology, and Gregory L. Beatty, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of Hematology Oncology, and are two of just 10 researchers to receive these grants. They'll each receive $750,000 over the course of three years to support projects that investigate strategies to broaden the effectiveness of immunotherapy in cancer.
Farwell's grant-winning proposal is focused on the imaging of CAR T cells - a new approach to treating cancer in which white blood cells called T cells are engineered with chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) - which help the T cells to specifically target tumors. This treatment has shown dramatic activity in several blood cancers, including advanced, chemotherapy-resistant leukemia.
However, there is currently no way to track CAR T cells once they're administered to a patient, meaning it's difficult to assess how effectively the cells are working and what toxic side effects they might be causing. Farwell and his team want to develop a new, traceable system that carries a potent "suicide gene," which would allow doctors to monitor the CAR T cells in action using PET imaging, and - if undesirable or toxic effects occur - activate a gene that would destroy the CAR T cells. The hope is that this platform will find widespread use as an imaging tool for CAR T cell therapy, and ultimately help in the design of more effective cell-based therapies for cancer.
Beatty's work will focus on the role of the liver in the body's response to immunotherapy. The liver plays a key role in regulating the body's immune system, and current research shows immunotherapy may be less effective when cancer has already spread there. Beatty's team will test the hypothesis that cancer, as it develops, influences the microenvironment in the liver, causing it to be more susceptible to cancer and to negatively impact the effectiveness of immunotherapy. They will also investigate approaches to make immunotherapies more effective once cancer has spread to the liver.
The SU2C Immuno-Oncology IRG program helps early-career scientists who are pursuing innovative cancer research projects focused on immunotherapy. All recipients are no more than seven years into their first independent, tenure-track appointments, and all of them are researching high-reward immunology proposals that have the potential to translate to the clinic to help in the fight against cancer.
The American Association for Cancer Research is the scientific partner of SU2C, and each researcher officially received their grants at the AACR Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.
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