New program to fast-track lung cancer research from lab to clinic

Patient-focused science at the heart of $13M National Cancer Institute grant
Illustration of the human body with the lungs outlined in blue
Illustration by Kim Westphal / Fred Hutch News Service

Lung cancer is far and away from the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. In the U.S. alone, a projected 142,000 people will die of the disease this year.

A new five-year, $13 million grant will help scientists and clinicians at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center try to improve outcomes for these patients. Created by the new grant, Hutch’s new Specialized Program of Research Excellence in Lung Cancer will bring together experts from across Fred Hutch and its partner organizations to fast-track the latest breakthroughs in its labs to patients and those at risk of developing the disease. 

The National Cancer Institute’s SPORE initiative is designed to speed basic scientific advances into the clinic, said Dr. McGarry Houghton, a lung cancer immunologist and the leader of the Hutch’s new program. The NCI requires every research project in a SPORE to start clinical testing by the end of the five-year period. 

“I'm most excited about the opportunities to finally offer lung cancer patients in Seattle the very best science coming out of Fred Hutch,” Houghton said. “We can now take the best homegrown ideas from our labs and bring them to the clinic, bypassing the shortcomings of current therapies.”   

Fred Hutch’s lung cancer SPORE is organized around four initial projects:

What’s keeping checkpoint inhibitors in check?

Immunotherapy drugs called checkpoint inhibitors are revolutionizing the treatment of certain cancers. But the drugs only work to shrink tumors in about 20% of patients with non-small cell lung cancer, or NSCLC. Houghton and Dr. Christina Baik will study whether certain immune cells called neutrophils interfere with the efficacy of these drugs in this type of lung cancer. They also plan to launch a clinical trial that pairs a checkpoint inhibitor with a drug that reduces levels of tumor-associated neutrophils. 

Developing a T-cell vaccine

Drs. Stan Riddell and Sylvia Lee aim to develop a vaccine that can get a patient’s immune system to target NSCLC. And in a novel twist, they’ll design the vaccine using a key player of the immune system: T cells.

The researchers plan to first identify cancer-specific markers called antigens on the surface of a patient’s NSCLC cells. Then they’ll engineer some of the patient’s own T cells to deliver those antigens throughout the body like a battle flag, rousing the patient’s immune system to fight the cancer. In other words, the engineered T cells would act like the inactive flu virus in your annual flu shot. Riddell and Lee plan to test this approach in patients in a clinical trial by the end of the grant period. 

Dr. McGarry Houghton
“I'm most excited about the opportunities to finally offer lung cancer patients in Seattle the very best science coming out of Fred Hutch,” said Dr. McGarry Houghton, lung cancer SPORE principal investigator. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Testing a new targeted therapy

Small cell lung cancer is a deadly disease with few effective treatment options. But up to a third of these cancers have a particular genetic mutation that could potentially be targeted by a certain experimental new drug. Drs. David MacPherson and Renato Martins will map out how this drug works and identify telltale molecular signs that can predict who will respond to this treatment. They plan to test this new therapy in SCLC patients through a clinical trial. 

Precision screening for lung cancer

Periodic CT scans in people at high risk of lung cancer can detect cancers early when they’re most treatable. But most lung nodules detected in scans turn out to be benign. Drs. Paul Lampe and Paul Kinahan of the University of Washington want to make this screening process more precise, saving patients with low-risk nodules from invasive biopsies, additional imaging, more medical bills, and anxiety about cancer risk. They are developing a strategy that combines machine-learning technology with imaging data, novel blood biomarkers, and medical history into a risk calculator for a lung nodule’s likelihood of malignancy. They will then test their new screening method in high-risk patients.

Jake Siegel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Previously, he covered health topics at UW Medicine and technology at Microsoft. He has an M.A. from the Missouri School of Journalism.

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