Featuring: Jeffrey Sosman, MD
The accelerated advancement of cancer immunology and immunotherapy, a type of biological therapy that boosts the immune system’s ability to recognize and kill cancer cells, has significantly improved the effectiveness of cancer treatment and patient outcomes. One initiative is bringing together investigators who study immunotherapy to increase collaboration and accelerate high-impact immunotherapy research: the Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Initiative (CII) at the Robert H.Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.
Together, Jeffrey Sosman, MD, professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology, and Bin Zhang, MD, PhD, professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology and of Microbiology-Immunology, lead the CII. The initiative, established in June 2020, aims to improve the understanding of the underlying mechanisms of cancer immunology and immunotherapy response, resistance and toxicity.
Since the discovery of immune checkpoint inhibitors in the 1990s, the field of cancer immunology has been advancing rapidly and improving the treatment of solid tumors entirely. Immune checkpoints keep the body’s immune system “in check”, ultimately preventing it from becoming too strong and accidentally destroying healthy cells.
These immune checkpoints are recruited into immune activation when immune checkpoint proteins, which are located on the surface of T-cells, engage with similar proteins on other cells such as cancer cells. When these proteins bind, they signal T-cells to turn off completely, preventing the immune system from destroying the cancer cell. Immune checkpoint inhibitors, however, prevent these proteins from binding together and allow T-cells to destroy cancer cells.
Over the last 15 years, immune checkpoint inhibitors and other types of immunotherapies have become the main line of defense against more than 10 different types of solid tumor cancers, including breast cancer, skin cancer, bladder cancer and hematologic malignancies.
“I think immunologic approaches have become even more important than chemotherapy for many cancers. It’s been a complete transformation of oncology care,” Sosman said.
The Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Initiative
The CII provides resources and programs that foster collaboration among basic scientists and clinical investigators across the Lurie Cancer Center and Feinberg who are studying and treating the immune regulation of cancer.
“The overarching goal of the initiative is to integrate the resources and facilities across the center in cancer immunotherapy and help translate benchwork science findings into clinical applications,” Zhang said.
Currently, the CII supports investigators pursuing the following research topics: targeting immune suppression in the tumor microenvironment, nanotechnology and biomolecular engineering immunotherapy for cancer treatment, immune-related adverse events in cancer immunotherapy and immune profiling. They are also supporting new strategies that combine epigenetic modulation and immune checkpoint blockade in brain tumors, prostate tumors, skin cancers, renal carcinomas, bladder cancers, pancreatic cancers and ovarian cancers.
According to Sosman and Zhang, the overarching goal of the CII is to increase collaboration, excel high-impact immunotherapy research at the cancer center and help increase visibility and extramural funding for ongoing and future research projects.
“It’s great to have everybody interested in studying cancer immunology together pursuing a common goal. It’s also important for people who come at this research from different directions to be able to communicate their skills and try to drive more collaboration,” Sosman said.
Currently, the CII hosts monthly presentations and meetings for investigators to learn about and discuss research interests and seek collaborative opportunities, as well as workshops and roundtables, research progress meetings and a cancer immunology journal club.
The CII’s Immunotherapy Assessment Core also supports investigators by providing cutting-edge, high-throughput technologies and expertise for clinical and translational studies that aim to identify the mechanisms of immunopathogenesis at the single-cell level. The core is also equipped to support investigators who are exploring novel disease-specific biomarkers that may improve personalized immunotherapy approaches.
“That’s going to really guide us in how we stratify which patient populations will respond to more intensive therapy, different combinations of therapy or even less intensive therapy,” said Zhang, who co-directs the core with Isabelle C Le Poole, PhD, professor of Dermatology and Microbiology-Immunology.
As for the CII, Sosman and Zhang said their hope is for the initiative to eventually become a home for cancer immunotherapy investigators at the Lurie Cancer Center and across Northwestern.
“We’d like to see cancer immunology become a strong enough effort that it can become a major program within the cancer center and provide us a high profile in that area,” Sosman said.
Feinberg Investigates Cancer ImmunologyRecently, Feinberg investigators have made the following discoveries that have significantly reshaped the understanding of cancer immunology and immunotherapy:
This article was originally published in the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine News Center on May 25, 2022.
Jeffrey Sosman, MD, professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology, and co-leader of the Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Initiative (CII) at the Lurie Cancer Center.
Bin Zhang, MD, PhD, PhD, professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology and of Microbiology-Immunology, and co-leader of the CII.
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