June 25, 2015

Award-winning VICC investigators in spotlight at ASCO

The 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, held May 29 – June 2 in Chicago, put multiple Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center investigators in the spotlight.

Several young cancer investigators at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center received research grant awards during the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), held May 29 – June 2 in Chicago.

The grants, designed to boost the recipients’ research careers, were awarded by ASCO’s Conquer Cancer Foundation, a non-profit organization working to conquer the disease by funding breakthrough cancer research and sharing cutting-edge knowledge with patients and physicians worldwide.

Third-year medical oncology fellows Valerie Jansen, M.D., Ph.D., and Jonathan Lehman, M.D., Ph.D., each received a Young Investigator Award which provides $50,000 in funding for cancer research projects. Jansen is researching breast cancer and works in the laboratory of Carlos Arteaga, M.D., director of the Center for Cancer Targeted Therapies and director of the Breast Cancer Program.

Lehman is investigating small cell lung cancer (SCLC), the most aggressive lung cancer, in the laboratory of Pierre Massion, M.D., Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Medicine and director of the Thoracic Program.

Douglas Johnson, M.D., assistant professor of Medicine, received a Career Development Award, providing $200,000 over three years for his research in melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer.

During the ASCO conference, Johnson delivered an oral presentation on the biological mechanisms that lead to treatment resistance in melanoma. Approximately half of all melanoma patients have tumors that harbor a BRAFV600gene mutation. Therapies that target BRAF are usually effective, but within a few months nearly all patients develop resistance to the therapy and their cancer progresses. Johnson and colleagues studied 132 tumor samples and found a variety of genetic mutations that lead to this acquired resistance. This study provides insights into strategies to address treatment resistance.

Christine Lovly, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of Medicine and Cancer Biology and co-editor-in-chief of My Cancer Genome, gave an oral presentation on strategies to overcome acquired resistance to targeted therapies in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Lovly also presented on two novel therapeutically targetable alterations in NSCLC.

Sarah Nechuta, Ph.D., MPH, assistant professor of Medicine, reported on a study of 1,695 patients with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) which is one of the most difficult types of breast cancer to treat. The study found that increasing levels of physical activity among TNBC patients was associated with improved breast cancer specific survival and overall survival. The results were statistically significant for women whose activity level was equivalent to four or more hours of moderate activity per week.

Several other high-profile research studies involving VICC investigators were presented during the ASCO meeting. Immunotherapy, including programmed death receptor 1 (PD-1) and programmed death receptor ligand (PD-L1) inhibitors garnered the most attention during the conference. These agents help activate T cells in patients with a variety of solid tumors and have shown promising results, resulting in FDA approval as treatment options for patients with melanoma and squamous cell lung cancer, so far.

Leora Horn, M.D., associate professor of Medicine and clinical director of the Thoracic Oncology Program, was involved in several studies with these agents in patients with non-small cell lung cancer including two Phase III trials comparing the therapy nivolumab to standard chemotherapy, and docetaxel as second line therapy in patients with squamous and nonsquamous NSCLC. Both trials met their primary endpoint of improved overall survival in patients receiving nivolumab compared to chemotherapy. Horn also presented on a trial with atezolizumab in NSCLC patients with demonstrated improved response rates and survival in patients with tumors and immune infiltrate within the tumors that were PD-L1 positive.

Igor Puzanov, M.D., associate professor of Medicine and director of Melanoma Clinical Research, was involved in a clinical research trial of talimogene laherparepvec (T-VEC), an oncolytic virus based on a modified herpes simplex virus type 1. He presented data showing 22 percent of patients had complete responses to T-VEC combined with ipilimumab, an anti-CTLA-4 antibody. Based on positive Phase III single agent data, T-VEC is being evaluated for potential FDA approval for patients with advanced melanoma.