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New treatment doubles progression-free survival in some pancreatic cancer patients

Enzyme lowers pressure inside tumors, allows chemotherapy in

May 29, 2015 | By Susan Keown / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Sunil Hingorani

Dr. Sunil Hingorani, a pancreatic cancer expert at Fred Hutch, is cautiously optimistic about the interim results of a phase 2 clinical trial that combines an experimental enzyme with chemotherapy to lower pressure within tumors and extend survival.

Fred Hutch file

Combining chemotherapy with an experimental enzyme that lowers pressure within tumors seems to double the amount of time certain patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer have before their disease progresses, suggests an interim analysis of data from an ongoing phase 2 trial. However, the trial must be completed before any definitive conclusions can be drawn, cautioned study principal investigator and pancreatic cancer expert Dr. Sunil Hingorani of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“For me, this ― at an absolute minimum ― says ‘finish this trial,’” said Hingorani, who is presenting the interim results of the Halozyme Therapeutics-sponsored Halo 202 trial this Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Society for Clinical Oncology. The meeting, which begins today in Chicago, runs through June 2.

The trial combines the latest first-line, standard-of-care combination chemotherapy for advanced pancreatic cancer with an enzyme called PEGPH20 that breaks down hyaluronic acid, or HA. HA is a molecule that absorbs water and serves as a natural shock absorber in knee joints. But it’s also produced in high amounts in some tumors and has been linked to a poor prognosis.

In high-HA tumors, the water-loving HA sucks the moisture from surrounding tissues into the tumor, leading to such high pressures that drugs travelling through the bloodstream can’t get in to effectively attack cancer cells.

PEGPH20 is a version of the naturally occurring hyaluronidase enzyme that breaks down HA, which has been modified to be more stable in the body. The idea behind the trial, generated by mouse model research published in 2012 by Hingorani’s team, is that using the enzyme to break down HA and lower the pressure inside the tumors will allow blood to penetrate and deliver cancer-killing drugs to their targets. 

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Fred Hutch at ASCO

Research highlights from the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology

May 29, 2015 | By Fred Hutch News Service staff

A number of investigators from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center will share new research findings at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, or ASCO, which is being held today through June 2 in Chicago. The theme of this year’s gathering is “Illumination & Innovation: Transforming Data into Learning.”

Below is a brief roundup of some of the Fred Hutch research being presented.

Dr. Cameron Turtle

Dr. Cameron Turtle will present results of a trial using a precisely balanced cocktail of therapeutic T cells to treat leukemia by harnessing the body's own immune system.

Fred Hutch file

A first-of-its-kind leukemia immunotherapy with CAR-T cells

On Monday, Dr. Cameron Turtle will present data from an ongoing, early-stage clinical trial indicating that a first-of-its-kind immunotherapy is safe and feasible in certain patients with particular forms of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia. This therapy involves engineering immune cells called T cells with a molecule known as a chimeric antigen receptor, or CAR, that empowers the T cells to recognize and eliminate the patient’s cancer. CAR T-cell therapy has been gaining attention for the encouraging results it has generated, but aspects of the approach still need to be refined to make it as safe and effective as scientists believe it can ultimately be.

To that end, Turtle, Dr. David Maloney and their Hutch colleagues are testing a unique form of the therapy. They are engineering two very specific subtypes of T cells with a CAR that targets certain B-cell cancers, and they are giving those engineered cells to patients in a specific ratio, like a pair of carefully measured recipe ingredients. This is the first trial ever to test CAR T cells given in a defined combination to try and produce a more consistent form of the therapy.

At ASCO, Turtle will discuss results from more than 50 of the first patients treated on the trial, a majority of whom received the precisely balanced cocktail of therapeutic T cells. So far, the results show the cancer was eliminated from the bone marrow in most of the ALL patients and was completely or partially eliminated in approximately two-thirds of the NHL and CLL patients. The team is now using the defined-composition CAR T-cell cocktail to work out what factors are important in determining outcomes in patients who receive T-cell therapy for cancer.

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Good news at Fred Hutch

Dr. Peter Nelson principal researcher on prostate cancer 'Dream Team'; Dr. Kathi Malone honored by Komen Puget Sound; Dr. Eric Chow leads study of cardioprotective drug that addresses chemo concerns in children; and Dr. Linda Buck receives honorary doctorate from Harvard

May 28, 2015 | By Fred Hutch staff

Dr. Peter Nelson

Dr. Peter Nelson is a principal researcher on the Stand Up to Cancer Prostate Cancer Foundation Dream Team.

Fred Hutch file

Dr. Peter Nelson is principal researcher on Stand Up to Cancer Dream Team that charts genomic landscape of advanced prostate cancer

An international, multi-institution Stand Up to Cancer Prostate Cancer Foundation Dream Team published findings May 21 in Cell that hold promise for advancing precision medicine for men with advanced prostate cancer.

Dr. Peter Nelson, a prostate cancer researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is a principal researcher on the Dream Team, which includes scientists from Fred Hutch and the University of Washington, among other institutions.

The researchers sequenced the DNA and RNA of tumor-biopsy samples from 150 men with metastatic, castration-resistant prostate cancer – an advanced form of the disease that has stopped responding to standard hormone-based therapies. They found that approximately 90 percent of the tumor specimens harbored some kind of genetic anomaly that was “clinically actionable,” meaning that treatments may already exist to target those aberrations.

“There are several notable and exciting results from this study,” Nelson said. “First, we demonstrated that biopsies can be routinely obtained from patients with a metastatic solid tumor and that these biopsies yield high-quality information. Second, these advanced prostate cancers have a wide spectrum of genomic aberrations; the study now provides a road map for drug development,” he said. “Third, and very importantly, different tumors have different driver aberrations, meaning that you would not want to treat each patient the same way. The genetic information clearly points to specific targets that should be prioritized in an individual patient.”

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HIV vaccine: Could a few special cells help protect millions of people?

New analysis finds rare immune cells linked to HIV vaccine’s effectiveness

May 28, 2015 | By Dr. Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

T cells

Rare cells capable of making multiple different immune molecules may be key to a working HIV vaccine, according to a new analysis.

Illustration by Kimberly Carney / Fred Hutch News Service

In the nearly 30-year hunt for a working HIV vaccine, researchers have fiercely debated what that vaccine will look like — and, when people receive the shot, what kind of immune response their bodies will mount that ultimately protects them from infection.

There are several kinds of immune responses that could protect against HIV infection. Researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have now found that a small but important subset of the immune cells known as T cells may be important for a working HIV vaccine.

Dr. Raphael Gottardo, a computational biologist at Fred Hutch who specializes in vaccine research, led an international research team that devised a unique, computational method to detect a tiny fraction of T cells in HIV-vaccine recipients — cells dubbed “polyfunctional T cells” for their ability to produce several different immune molecules. These polyfunctional T cells, Gottardo's team found, were linked to a lower risk of infection. The team published its findings Monday in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

“It’s not the quantity that matters, but it’s the quality of the cells,” Gottardo said. “And, in fact, we’ve known that for a very long time.”

Gottardo and his team weren’t the first to look for T cells correlated with HIV protection in a vaccine study, but they were the first to find them.

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The right tools for the job: taking immunotherapy to the next level

Dr. Matthias Stephan is combining the fields of immunology, bioengineering and gene therapy to harness the immune system to treat solid tumors

May 22, 2015 | By Dr. Sabrina Richards / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Matthias Stephan

Dr. Matthias Stephan has developed a way to make cell-based immunotherapy as effective against solid tumors as it has been against blood cancers such as leukemia.

Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

Research usually advances by inches forward, not leaps. Epiphanies that open new avenues of investigation are relatively rare. Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Dr. Matthias Stephan experienced just such a flash of insight in the dark early hours of a Sunday morning several years ago. As several threads of knowledge coalesced into a unified idea, Stephan realized how, with a single device, he could bring the power of the immune system to bear against solid tumors like breast cancer.

Stephan is a pioneer in the field of immunobioengineering, working where “materials science meets immunology” to create unconventional solutions to treating cancer. Drawing from gene therapy, bioengineering and immunotherapy, Stephan is pinpointing the best tools in each discipline and finding new ways to combine them. In doing so, he is devising inventive strategies to circumvent the hurdles that prevent immunotherapy from being cost-effective, widely available and effective against many types of cancer.

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Singing, dancing, dignitaries mark opening of UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre

Uganda's President Museveni tours, speaks at event marking joyful milestone in decade-long alliance

May 21, 2015 | By Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

Dancers at UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre opening

African dancers perform at the opening ceremony of the UCI – Fred Hutch Cancer Center on May 21, 2015 in Kampala, Uganda.

Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

KAMPALA, Uganda – With dancers from every corner of Uganda and speeches by dignitaries including President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the Uganda Cancer Institute, or UCI, and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center on Thursday celebrated the opening of a new, state-of-the-art home for their decade-long alliance.

The UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre for the first time brings all of the alliance’s work under one roof, accommodating 20,000 outpatient visits a year as well as housing laboratories for research and rooms for training and conferences. It is the first comprehensive cancer center jointly built by U.S. and African cancer institutions in sub-Saharan Africa.

“What started as a conversation among a few people has grown into a grand vision,” said UCI Director Dr. Jackson Orem, who is co-director of the UCI-Fred Hutch alliance, along with Dr. Corey Casper, director of Fred Hutch’s Global Oncology Program.

“I am certain that we are doing something extraordinary,” said Casper. “The challenge is great for us, but the opportunities are much greater.”

With a brick exterior that matches the buildings at Fred Hutch’s Seattle headquarters, the three-story, 25,000-square-foot building rises on the edge of the UCI’s Kampala campus, next to a jumble of low-slung, stucco-walled structures that have served as Uganda’s only cancer treatment center since 1967.

Completing the transformation, the Ugandan government recently opened a new in-patient hospital just up the hill. It began moving in pediatric patients two months ago in a phased opening.

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