Immunotherapy Working Group Ready to Take Its “Moonshot” Against Cancer

January 3, 2017

UH pediatric oncologist member of select national panel

Department of Pediatrics - January 2017

Alex Huang, MD, PhD

ALEX HUANG, MD, PHD

Theresia G. & Stuart F. Kline Family Foundation Chair in Pediatric Oncology and Associate Director of the Pediatric Hematology-Oncology Fellowship Program, Angie Fowler Adolescent & Young Adult Cancer Program, UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital; Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Pathology, General Medical Sciences & Biomedical Engineering, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Co-Leader of the Hematopoietic and Immune Cancer Biology Program, Case Comprehensive Cancer Center at Case Western Reserve University

Last January, President Obama announced the cancer “Moonshot” initiative, his proposal to double progress against cancer over the next five years. In May 2016, Alex Huang, MD, PhD, pediatric oncologist with the Angie Fowler Adolescent & Young Adult Cancer Institute at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, was named to Moonshot’s Blue Ribbon Panel Working Group on Cancer Immunology and Prevention, one of seven such panels established. The group made two consensus research recommendations, which Vice President Joe Biden, who was overseeing the initiative, approved.

The Moonshot immunotherapy group’s main recommendation is to increase national collaboration so that researchers can more quickly discover all the implications of recent findings. Physicians and scientists know now that strengthening cancer patients’ immune systems can fight off their cancers much better than can chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery.

“Our understanding of how the immune system works is advancing,” Dr. Huang says. “It turns out that normally, you and I develop tumors on a frequent basis. The immune system is constantly finding them.”

Those that become full-blown cancers somehow find a way to turn off the immune system’s war on them.

Dr. Huang’s and his fellow blue ribbon panelists want to turn that attack back on, for every tumor. “This working group is charged with coming up with ideas to make 10 years of progress happen in the next five years,” he says.

Tumors that survive and continuously grow do so by co-opting the immune system in their local tissue microenvironment. To control its normal response to tumors, the immune system must not only be able to turn on at will, but also to turn off temporarily if it attacks too strongly.

Successful cancers permanently take over these normal controls, rendering the immune system ineffective.

However, it’s now known that drugs can be created that will effectively turn the immune system back on. Once unleashed, the immune system is much better than chemotherapy, because it targets the tumor precisely and specifically.

“The immune system is highly sensitive and specific, and it can work better than drugs at times,” Dr. Huang says. It also instills a memory of the tumor in the patient’s body so the immune system will turn back on if a similar tumor ever returns again.

The immunotherapy working group also recommends creating an exhaustive “immune atlas,” so that knowledge about how to turn the immune system back on against tumors can be catalogued in one place that is easy for scientists to search. It would include information on genes, antigens, mutations and other immune system features.

“We don’t have a good handle on who all the players are in this,” Dr. Huang says, so a complete atlas is an essential first step.

For more information on the immunotherapy working group or to refer a patient to Dr. Huang, send an email to Peds.Innovations@UHhospitals.org.

 

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