RESEARCH

Penn State gets $12m to advance critical cancer research

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The grant will go towards critical research on radiation oncology and immunotherapy.

A US$12 million grant awarded by The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research to the University of Pennsylvania (Penn State) will help researchers at the institution pursue the next generation of cancer treatments.

The grant will go towards establishing a new center called The Mark Foundation Centre for Immunotherapy, Immune Signalling and Radiation at the university. The centre’s primary focus is to seek a better understanding of the relationship between novel forms of radiation therapy, signaling pathways between cancer and immune cells, and the immune system’s ability to kill cancer.

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To answer these questions, multidisciplinary teams of basic science and clinical researchers from across Penn State’s Abramson Cancer Center will work collaboratively on five specific projects at the center.

“These projects have the chance to change the paradigm when it comes to cancer treatment,” centre director Andy J. Minn, who is also an associate professor of Radiation Oncology in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, said in a release on Penn Medicine News.

“Understanding important and potentially targetable mechanisms of immunotherapy resistance and how to use novel radiation therapies to enhance immunotherapies carries enormous benefits for patients.”

Central to each of the five projects is understanding the role of interferon (IFN) and pattern recognition receptor (PRR) signaling in helping the immune system fight cancer.

IFNs are a group of signaling proteins that are made and released by host cells to protect cells from viruses. PRRs are molecules that trigger the alarm system when it recognises pathogens invading the body.

Two projects will seek to identify the genetics behind IFNs and PRRs, looking at how they function in cancer and immune cells, how they can be corrupted by cancer cells and how to manipulate vulnerabilities to help the human body response better to immunotherapy.

Two other projects involve FLASH radiation, which is a highly-concentrated form of radiation capable of delivering an entire course of radiation therapy in less than a second. Typical courses run for weeks. Researchers on these projects will study how FLASH impacts IFN and PRR signaling in comparison with the traditional form of radiation treatment. They will also study “whether FLASH makes a tumour more susceptible to attack by the immune system, yet decreases side effects normally associated with conventional radiation therapy.”

The fifth project seeks to engineer chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells, which can work to influence IFN signaling in the tumour. Researchers will work on first improving the cells and secondly to create a “bystander effect” whereby the cells are able to engage other immune cells that have not joined the fight against the tumour.

“When you combine Penn’s expertise in radiation oncology with our pioneering work in CAR T and immunotherapy, it’s clear these projects bring together the joint expertise of the Abramson Cancer Center in a way very few other institutions anywhere in the world can match,” said James M. Metz, chair of Radiation Oncology.

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According to Penn Medicine News, the research grant from The Mark Foundation was signed on May 31. Commenting on the award, foundation CEO Michele Cleary said the groundbreaking work to be done at the new center would have “enormous” significance for cancer patients.

“This multidisciplinary effort is well positioned for success, and we expect these leading researchers will uncover novel insights into cancer biology that will substantially expand the options for treatments with better efficacy and minimal toxicities.

“We look forward to working with this powerhouse team over the next five years and beyond.”

The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research is a non-profit launched in 2017 dedicated to accelerating cures for cancer by integrating discoveries in biology with innovative technology.

Established by billionaire philanthropist Alex Knaster in memory of his father Mark who died of cancer in 2014, the foundation has so far awarded more than US$57 million in grant funding to 70 institutions across 18 US states and three countries.