UCSD Med School, Moores Cancer Center Awarded Grant to Study Cancer Immunotherapy

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A team of researchers at the UC San Diego School of Medicine and Moores Cancer Center have been awarded $600,000 to study new drugs designed to break resistance to cancer immunotherapy.

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The three-year grant was provided by the V Foundation for Cancer Research of Cary, North Carolina.

The researchers plan to build on a recently published study in which they identified an enzyme — known as PI-3 kinase gamma — as a molecular switch controlling immune suppression.

The researchers will test an inhibitor for the enzyme, alone and in combination with other drugs, in head and neck cancers to boost the effectiveness of immunotherapy.

“Check-point inhibitors have received a great deal of attention because they have saved the lives of some people with advanced cancer, but these drugs have not worked in most people,” said Judith Varner, a professor in the departments of Pathology and Medicine.

“Research shows that patients with cancer have profound immune suppression,” Varner said. “Our work identifies a path to turn off immune suppression. And we have the drug that can do it, as demonstrated in animal models of cancer.”

In mouse studies, the scientists found that signaling by the targeted enzyme promotes immune suppression by inhibiting activation of anti-tumor T cells. Administering an inhibitor called IPI-549 reversed immune suppression, stimulated response to checkpoint inhibitors and eliminated cancer in most test animals.

The V Foundation grant will support a pair of phase I clinical trials that will begin enrolling patients in the next few months. The first will be a trial for patients with late stage head and neck cancers, followed by a second trial for patients in the early stage of the disease.

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“Immunotherapy holds a lot of promise for patients but we need to increase its potency to be effective in a larger number of patients,” said Dr. Ezra Cohen, who heads the San Diego Center for Precision Immunotherapy at UC San Diego Health.

“This study could lead to greatly improved outcomes for patients with head and neck cancers and many other malignancies,” Cohen said. “It may also allow us to predict which patients will benefit from this kind of therapeutic approach.”

The V Foundation was founded by college basketball coach Jim Valvano shortly before his cancer death in 1993. He’s known to most sports fans for running onto the court after a miracle shot that won a national championship for North Carolina State 10 years earlier.

—City News Service

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