$11 million grant given to fight ovarian cancer

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A collaborative team -- the UPMC CancerCenter, the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. -- has landed an $11 million federal grant to develop methods to prevent, treat and even cure ovarian cancer with promising new immunotherapies.

Pitt and UPMC researchers are working to bolster immune cells to target and kill tumor cells that survive chemotherapy and continue to be overlooked by the immune system.

Roswell, meanwhile, is studying immune cells its researchers have identified that never fully mature and could explain why some women fare poorly with chemotherapy leading to quick cancer recurrence. Roswell also is studying proteins from various genes that suppress immune function.

The National Cancer Institute's Specialized Program of Research Excellence, or SPORE, has provided the five-year grant to fund the research projects, with expectations that they will proceed to human clinical trials before the grant expires. The mission also includes improving the understanding of ovarian cancer, with strategies to prevent cancer in high-risk women and the typical cancer recurrence after chemotherapy.

Roswell is the lead institution in the SPORE grant.

"This is the grand finale of work over the past decade, and it's a very gratifying collaboration," said Kirsten Moysich, a co-principal investigator for the project and a professor in Roswell's departments of immunology, and cancer prevention and control. "We've worked together seamlessly since incorporating the Pittsburgh part of the research into SPORE."

Having UPCI and UPMC on the team was important in landing the large grant, she said.

The two will receive about one-third of the $11 million grant over five years to further develop and test a personalized cancer treatment that supercharges a patient's own immune cells so they recognize tumor cells weakened by chemotherapy, said Robert P. Edwards, executive vice chairman of gynecologic services and director of the Ovarian Cancer Center for Excellence at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC.

Tumor cells that survive chemotherapy can develop new tumors more resistant to the therapy.

The immunotherapy works by exposing the immune cells to weakened tumor cells so they can identify and attack them as foreign bodies. When placed back into the abdominal cavity of the patient at the most opportune time during chemotherapy, they can target lingering cells whose survival leads to cancer recurrence. With those cells eliminated, the cancer won't likely return.

The goal, Dr. Edwards said, is to use a woman's own supercharged immune cells to immunize her against ovarian cancer.

The grant is expected to advance the research into human clinical trials, and even Phase III trials, to test the new treatments against standard chemotherapies. UPCI and UPMC also offer the project a regionwide network of ovarian-cancer patients who can participate in clinical trials.

"We're hoping by the time five years is up we'll have approaches worthy of frontline studies with state-of-the-art treatments," Dr. Edwards said. "The real benefit of the grant is to combine researchers of Roswell and Pitt. We're very excited about our friends and collaborators at Roswell."


David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578. First Published October 7, 2013 8:00 PM


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