Making Strides in Therapeutic Immunology

March 01, 2014

Mark B. Faries, MDA novel cancer therapy that’s under development for metastatic melanoma may also benefit patients with a particularly aggressive type of breast cancer.

The therapy is an individualized treatment using immune cells taken from a patient’s tumor. The tumor sample is placed in a culture, and researchers extract cancer-fighting white blood cells called tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes – or TILs. Billions of copies of these cells are manufactured and then injected back into the patient.

Clinical trials of the therapy, called adoptive cell therapy with autologous TILs, are showing promising results in patients with metastatic melanoma, according to Mark B. Faries, MD, director of the Donald L. Morton, MD, Melanoma Research Program and therapeutic immunology, who has led the research.

Melanoma that has spread from the original tumor to other parts of the body is especially difficult to treat, with five-year survival rates of less than 6%. The problem is that metastatic melanoma is notoriously resistant to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Some newer medications, such as vemurafenib and ipilimumab, have improved survival rates. Although the response rate of vemurafenib is approximately 80%, the effect of the medication does not last long and recurrence may occur within a year due to the development of drug resistance in cancer cells. The response rate of ipilimumab is as low as 5% to 11%.

When conventional treatments have failed, patients are often eager to try adoptive cell therapy. However, it’s available only at a few key centers in the United States, such as the National Cancer Institute, because the production of the cells is logistically and technically difficult. Institute researchers plan to submit an Investigational New Drug application to treat metastatic melanoma with the therapy.

Dr. Faries’ promising results in autologous TILs research prompted questions on whether the approach can apply to other types of cancer. Translating research findings from one type of cancer to another is a hallmark of the Institute.

Hitoe Torisu-Itakura, MD, PhDHitoe Torisu-Itakura, MD, PhD, assistant professor of immunology, is evaluating the feasibility of an adoptive cell therapy program for application in breast cancer, especially an aggressive type of breast cancer that is frequently resistant to currently available therapy. Dr. Torisu-Itakura and her colleagues have developed standard operating procedures for a planned study and are in the process of validating lab equipment and assays to meet Food and Drug Administration requirements.

+ Dr. Torisu-Itakura’s research receives generous support from the Dr. Miriam & Sheldon G. Adelson Medical Research Foundation, the Associates for Breast and Prostate Cancer Studies (ABCs) and Sharon and David Keller.