New Approach, New Hope: $12M New York State Investment Will Fast-Track Innovative Roswell Park Research in Ovarian Cancer

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Researchers at Roswell Park Cancer Institute have received a four-year, $11.9 million NYSTEM grant to advance an innovative immunotherapy approach that uses adult stem cells in the treatment of advanced ovarian cancer.

This project represents a potentially paradigm-shifting approach in the use of immunotherapy to treat cancer.

Researchers at Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI) have received a prestigious grant of nearly $12 million from the New York State Stem Cell Science Program (NYSTEM) to develop new therapies for advanced ovarian cancer. The four-year, $11.9 million grant to RPCI is one of three new state awards totaling $36 million to support innovative approaches for developing stem-cell based therapies for diseases that are notoriously hard to treat. The clinical need for new treatments is dire, as advanced ovarian cancer is an aggressive and typically fatal disease.

Using an approach known as adoptive T-cell therapy, the Roswell Park team, led by Kunle Odunsi, MD, PhD, FRCOG, FACOG, Chair of the Department of Gynecologic Oncology, M. Steven Piver Professor of Gynecologic Oncology and Executive Director of the Center for Immunotherapy, will take stem cells from patients’ blood, re-engineer them and infuse the reprogrammed cells back into those patients. Once inside the patient’s body, the re-engineered stem cells become a continuous, potentially lifelong source of cancer-fighting immune cells. This strategy has proven successful in preclinical studies as a way to not only eradicate existing cancer but to prevent new cancer cells from developing.

“New York is home to some of the best researchers across the globe, and this funding will help ensure they can do the necessary work to grow our progress in stem cell science,” New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said in announcing the awards on Jan. 12. “This state is proud to be a leader in the health industry, and with this funding we will continue to develop modern, world-class research programs that work to make people worldwide healthier.”

The concept behind this new and novel project, which builds on past Roswell Park research, is to unite the cancer-killing power of T cells with the long-term regenerative power of adult stem cells. By enlisting both “killer” CD8+ T cells and “helper” CD4+ T cells, the researchers will be able to turn a patient’s own, reprogrammed stem cells into immune cells armed with the ability to recognize and kill cancer cells.

“This project represents a potentially paradigm-shifting approach in the use of immunotherapy to treat cancer, because we will be generating billions of these antitumor effector cells — to continually control existing tumors and minimize the chance of relapse,” said Dr. Odunsi, who is also Co-Leader of Roswell Park’s Tumor Immunology and Immunotherapy Program and a Professor of Gynecology & Obstetrics at the University at Buffalo (UB). “Reprograming adult hematopoietic stem cells for sustained attack against ovarian cancer is, to our knowledge, a completely new approach.”

Like much previous RPCI research on immune therapies to combat ovarian cancer, this new project targets the NY-ESO-1 antigen, which is expressed in cancer cells but not in most normal body tissues. Because this protein is so widely expressed by various malignant tumors, the approach may have application in the treatment of other cancers as well.

The project will encompass both preclinical work and an early-phase clinical research study in patients with ovarian cancer, and will take advantage of three resources housed within the RPCI Center for Immunotherapy:

  •     The Vector Development and Production Facility, directed by Richard Koya, MD, PhD
  •     The Therapeutic Cell Production Facility, directed by Christopher Choi, PhD
  •     The Immune Analysis Facility, directed by Junko Matsuzaki, PhD

Roswell Park faculty members Thinle Chodon, MD, PhD, and Takemasa Tsuji, PhD, are also among Dr. Odunsi’s co-investigators, as are Dr. Richard Bankert, VMD, PhD, from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University at Buffalo and Leonard Shultz, PhD, from The Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbor, Maine.

“This Roswell Park-developed, Roswell Park-led initiative is just the latest example of the ingenuity Dr. Odunsi and his team bring to the pressing challenge of how to develop better and more effective therapies for cancer,” said Candace Johnson, PhD, President & CEO and Cancer Center Director at Roswell Park. “We are enormously grateful for the leadership Gov. Cuomo and NYSTEM have shown in dedicating these funds strategically to address high-priority medical issues, and to the numerous individual and corporate donors whose contributions to the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation enabled the laboratory advances that Dr. Odunsi and his team will now be able to bring to patients.”

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About the New York State Stem Cell Science Program

The New York State Stem Cell Science Program is New York State’s multi-million dollar stem cell research funding program, the second largest in the nation. It works under the guidance of the Empire State Stem Cell Board, whose mission is “to foster a strong stem cell research community in New York State and to accelerate the growth of scientific knowledge about stem cell biology and the development of therapies and diagnostic methods under the highest ethical, scientific, and medical standards for the purpose of alleviating disease and improving human health.” Through the New York State Stem Cell Science Program, New York State has invested more than $300 million at 35 New York State institutions for research, infrastructure and education since its inception in 2007.

The Empire State Stem Cell Board was created to advise the New York State Commissioner of Health regarding the New York State Stem Cell Science Program. The Board functions through two standing committees established in the Public Health Law. The Funding Committee oversees the solicitation, review and award of research grants. The Ethics Committee is charged with making recommendations to the Funding Committee with respect to scientific, medical and ethical standards related to stem cell research.

About Roswell Park Cancer Institute

The mission of Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI) is to understand, prevent and cure cancer. Founded in 1898, RPCI is one of the first cancer centers in the country to be named a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center and remains the only facility with this designation in Upstate New York. The Institute is a member of the prestigious National Comprehensive Cancer Network, an alliance of the nation’s leading cancer centers; maintains affiliate sites; and is a partner in national and international collaborative programs. For more information, visit http://www.roswellpark.org, call 1-877-ASK-RPCI (1-877-275-7724) or email askrpci(at)roswellpark(dot)org. Follow Roswell Park on Facebook and Twitter.

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