March 19, 2015

VICC’s Johnson to study cancer survivorship with immune inhibitor drugs

Douglas Johnson, M.D.

Douglas Johnson, M.D., assistant professor of Medicine, has been named a recipient of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) Foundation Young Investigator Awards.

The two-year grant will provide $150,000 in funding for his research on survivorship among cancer patients who receive drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors.

The formal announcement of the grant awardees was made March 13 at the NCCN Annual Conference.

Johnson is the principal investigator of several clinical research trials at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC) for patients with melanoma.

“I am honored to receive this funding support from the NCCN Foundation,” said Johnson, who specializes in treating melanoma patients at VICC.

“This award will help us take the next steps in our research to more effectively use these new therapies for cancer patients.”

Johnson’s mentors for this grant are Jeffrey Sosman, M.D., professor of Medicine and director of the VICC Melanoma and Tumor Immunotherapy Program, and Debra Friedman, M.D., E. Bronson Ingram Professor of Pediatric Oncology and director of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology.

Melanoma is the most lethal form of skin cancer and while early stage disease is treatable, for decades there were no effective therapies for advanced disease which does not respond well to chemotherapy.

Within the past few years, however, two new classes of treatments have been developed. These include new targeted therapies for melanoma tumors which harbor specific mutations.

For example, the BRAF gene is mutated in about half of all melanoma cases and new drugs have been developed which target BRAF.

VICC investigators were among the leaders of the clinical trials that tested these new targeted therapies.

In addition, immune checkpoint inhibitors are playing a major role in melanoma treatment.

These agents have now been approved and are in use in melanoma and are beginning to also show activity in other cancers (including cancers of the lung, kidney and bladder,  Hodgkin lymphoma, and others).

In contrast to most cancer treatments, immune checkpoint inhibitors may cause responses that last for years.

Johnson said the body’s immune system normally detects and addresses threats from invaders. But in many forms of cancer, the immune system is suppressed by proteins that put a brake on the immune response. New checkpoint inhibitor drugs can remove this braking effect and allow the immune system’s T-cells to identify and attack the malignant cells.

“These immunotherapies are producing promising and long-lasting responses in patients with melanoma and other cancers,” explained Johnson.

“This grant will allow us to study long-term outcomes and treatment responses for patients who benefit from these new therapies.”

Johnson graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science degree from Abilene Christian University, Texas, and his M.D. from the University of Alabama School of Medicine, Birmingham.

He completed an Internal Medicine Residency at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, a fellowship in Hematology/Oncology at Vanderbilt University, and received a Master of Science in Clinical Investigation degree at Vanderbilt.

He joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 2014.

The NCCN is a nonprofit alliance of 26 of the world’s leading cancer centers, including VICC, and is devoted to research and education to improve the quality, effectiveness and efficiency of cancer care so that patients can live better lives.