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Joseph, Hegde receive Immunotherapy Scholar Award from the Faris Foundation

HOUSTON - April 9, 2019

Dr. Sujith Joseph, Senior Staff Scientist, and Dr. Meenakshi Hegde, Assistant Professor, both members of the Department of Pediatrics, Section of Hematology-Oncology, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Cancer Center have been awarded the Faris D. Virani Immunotherapy Scholar Award of $300,000 over two years, by The Faris Foundation.

The research project titled, “Developing Sarcoma-specific T-cell Platform for Grafting Chimeric Antigen Receptors,” will be conducted by Dr. Joseph in the laboratory of Dr. Hegde at the Texas Children’s Cancer Center.

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the immune system to specifically target and destroy cancer cells.  It has revolutionized the way we think about and treat cancer. The immune system is designed to help protect us from infection and other diseases such as cancer. It attacks and destroys substances that are foreign to the body such as bacteria or viruses. Cancer cells can be targeted by the immune system. However, cancer cells can develop changes that make them unrecognizable to the immune system and therefore not susceptible to destruction. Immunotherapeutic strategies help the immune system recognize cancer cells as foreign and strengthen its ability to fight cancer.

There are multiple types of immunotherapies for the treatment of cancer. One type of immunotherapy known as adoptive cellular therapy, involves collecting a patient’s immune cells from the blood, modifying them in the laboratory to recognize cancer-specific targets and then giving back the enhanced immune cells that will specifically target the patient’s cancer.  This approach, which was originally developed in T cells, first showed dramatic clinical effectiveness in patients with advanced skin and other cancers.

Why immunotherapy for sarcomas?

Sarcoma is an aggressive cancer of the bone and soft tissues (e.g., muscles) that can affect children and young adults. Children with resistant or relapsed disease, or disease that has spread to more than one location in the body (also known as metastasis) have very poor outcomes. For these high-risk children, targeted immunotherapy may prove beneficial and carry a lower risk of treatment-related toxicity.

Over the past decade, as part of adoptive cellular therapy strategies, T cells taken from patients have been modified to express a chimeric antigen receptor, or CAR, which redirects the cells to find a tumor-specific target of choice. CAR T cells that target the molecule CD19 on leukemia and lymphoma cells have generated up to 90% complete response rates in heavily pre-treated patients and were given “breakthrough therapy” designation by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2017. Our researchers are performing groundbreaking research and expanding the scope of targets for CAR T cells by developing treatments for several types of solid tumors, including sarcomas.

What will be our current effort for immunotherapy for sarcomas?

Over the last 10 years, our Center has implemented early clinical studies that established the safety of Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T cells targeting the Human Epidermal Growth Factor receptor 2 (HER2) in patients with advanced sarcoma (clinicaltrials.gov identifier: NCT00902044). Besides understanding the effectiveness of the CAR T cells, these studies have provided evidence that active responses of the patient’s own immune system can contribute to improved outcomes. Identifying patient-specific immune responses will enable researchers to develop personalized immunotherapeutic targets, thus bringing new, individualized treatment options for everyone one of our sarcoma patients.

Our research, which will be conducted in The Faris D. Virani Ewing’s Sarcoma Center of Texas Children’s Cancer Center, is designed to optimize the development and testing of the sarcoma-specific T-cell platform that could help treat and prevent sarcoma growth and spread.

Learn more about the Faris Foundation at thefarisfoundation.org.

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