publication date: Oct. 2, 2020

In Brief

C. Kent Osborne steps down as director of Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center

After 15 years in the role, C. Kent Osborne has stepped down as director of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine, the institution said.

He will stay on at Baylor as founding director of the cancer center. Helen Heslop, director of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy, will serve as interim director while the search for a new director is underway.

“It has been my honor to serve the Duncan Cancer Center as its director for the last 15 years,” said Osborne, professor of medicine in hematology and oncology and Dudley and Tina Sharp Chair for Cancer Research at Baylor. “Our success is clearly a team effort, and I want to thank everyone from the leadership, cancer center members and staff for their help in getting the center off the ground and to comprehensive designation in record time. I especially want to thank the late Dan L Duncan and his extraordinary family for their transformational $100 million gift, without which we would not have an NCI-designated Cancer Center today.”

Osborne came to Baylor in 1999 from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, starting what is now known as the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center, a unit of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. He brought his expertise in breast cancer patient care and research and a Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) NCI grant in breast cancer, now one of the longest running grants of its kind.

Under Osborne’s tenure, the Duncan Cancer Center was awarded the prestigious designation as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute, which was renewed again this year. The comprehensive designation recognizes the center for its depth and breadth of clinical and basic science research, clinical research trials and service to cancer patients from diverse populations in the community. Since the initial NCI-designation in 2007, annual research grant funding at the Duncan Cancer Center has increased to $170 million from $99 million.

The Duncan Cancer Center has more than 450 members, including laboratory researchers, surgical, medical and radiation oncologists, radiologists and pathologists providing comprehensive cancer care. Physicians provide patient care at multiple affiliated hospitals in Houston, including Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center, Texas Children’s Hospital, Harris Health System and the Michael E. DeBakey Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center.


Ruben Mesa named executive director of the Mays Cancer Center

Ruben Mesa was named executive director of the Mays Cancer Center. His appointment includes academic and research programming, as well as leading the cancer center’s patient care and clinical programs of the UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson affiliation.

Mesa’s appointment broadens the scope of responsibility in coordinating and integrating all aspects of cancer prevention, screening, care and survivorship with practice, education and research across UT Health San Antonio.

Mesa will also lead the integration and development of the inpatient cancer services for the new UT Health San Antonio Multispecialty and Research Hospital. This expanded appointment is part of the organization’s longer-term strategy for the Mays Cancer Center to earn comprehensive status from NCI.

Mays is an NCI-designated Cancer Center. Earning comprehensive status signifies that additional rigorous NCI standards are met.


Stephen Gruber named head of City of Hope’s Center for Precision Medicine

Stephen Gruber was named director of City of Hope’s newly founded Center for Precision Medicine. He will lead a team of more than 14 researchers focused on personalized cancer prevention and treatment plans.

“City of Hope is at the forefront of precision medicine. We utilize our affiliate TGen’s GEM ExTra test to assay all DNA-coding regions and to provide full RNA analysis of the human genome; as a result, we provide the most comprehensive genomic assessment available for clinical cancer testing,” said Michael Caligiuri, president of City of Hope National Medical Center and the Deana and Steve Campbell Physician-in-Chief Distinguished Chair. “Dr. Stephen Gruber’s previous experience as director of a comprehensive cancer center and international authority in genomic medicine leaves no doubt in my mind that he is the right person to lead our collaborative efforts to provide patients with the most appropriate personalized cancer care.”

Gruber is a medical oncologist and an expert in the genetic epidemiology of cancer, and has focused much of his research on solid tumors. At City of Hope, he uses genetics and genomics to drive preventive medicine, population health, clinical medicine, health outcomes and translational innovation.

He will launch a Lynch Syndrome Center of Excellence, making City of Hope the only institution on the West Coast to have specialized focus in this underdiagnosed inherited condition.

“The goal is to diagnose disease earlier when it’s more treatable and to treat patients with drugs that minimize or even cure their cancer rather than to prescribe ones that will have no effect on their specific tumor,” Gruber said in a statement. “It’s too early to disclose the details of our new program, but what I can say is that I’m excited and grateful to be part of the talented team at City of Hope that will usher in a new, personalized way to treat cancer.”

City of Hope’s precision medicine efforts have been given a boost through its affiliate, the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), which provides access to Ashion and GEMExTra, both of which provide clinical genomic sequencing and analysis technology.

Gruber is a former director of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and an attending physician at the cancer center and at Keck Hospital of USC. He was also a professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.


Deirdre Cohen named director of Mount Sinai’s Gastrointestinal Oncology Program

Deirdre J. Cohen, an expert in pancreatic and other gastrointestinal cancers, was named director of the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program and medical director of the Cancer Clinical Trials Office at The Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai Health System.

Cohen will also be an associate professor of medicine (hematology and medical oncology) at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. In these roles, she will conduct translational and clinical research, including studies that build upon scientific discoveries developed at Mount Sinai and collaborating institutions.

As director of the GI Oncology Program, Cohen will foster both clinical and research activities associated with GI cancers across the Mount Sinai cancer sites. She will also oversee the development of clinical trials in her role as medical director of the Cancer Clinical Trials Office.

Prior to joining Mount Sinai, Cohen was on the faculty in the Division of Medical Oncology at New York University for 13 years. Recently, she served as medical director for the Perlmutter Cancer Center Clinical Trials Office and acting director of NYU GI Medical Oncology.


James B. Yu named associate chief medical officer for radiation oncology at Smilow

James B. Yu, was named associate chief medical officer for radiation oncology for Smilow Cancer Hospital and Smilow Cancer Hospital Network.

A professor of therapeutic radiology at Yale School of Medicine and Smilow Cancer Hospital, Yu specializes in treating genitourinary cancers, including kidney, bladder, prostate, and central nervous system cancers and cases requiring Gamma Knife stereotactic radiosurgery.

Yu is a member of the Cancer Outcomes, Public Policy, and Effectiveness Research (COPPER) Center at Yale. Through his work in COPPER, Yu’s research centers on the comparative effectiveness of new radiation technologies and how these new technologies are adopted nationally.


Yale awarded SPORE for head and neck cancer research

Yale Cancer Center researchers were awarded a five-year, $11.7 million grant from NIH to fund the Yale Head and Neck Cancer Specialized Program of Research Excellence.

The goal of the Yale Head and Neck Cancer SPORE is to address critical barriers to treatment of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma due to resistance to immunotherapy, DNA damaging, and targeted therapy.

The YHN-SPORE is a collaboration with Fox Chase Cancer Center and the University of North Carolina Lineberger Cancer Center, and is one of three SPOREs awarded to YCC.


VICC receives “exceptional” score with renewal as an NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center

Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center received an overall “exceptional” score for its research impact and excellence in patient care.

The renewal of the NCI Cancer Center Support Grant provides Vanderbilt-Ingram more than $36 million over the next five years to advance research discoveries, to sustain the work of its scientific leadership and administration, and to maintain its infrastructure, including shared resources for cancer investigators.

The grant renewal represents an increase in funding over the previous five-year grant award with new support for research education, training, career development, and community outreach and engagement

This is the fifth renewal of Vanderbilt-Ingram as an NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, three with Jennifer Pietenpol as director. It is the only Comprehensive Cancer Center in Tennessee providing treatment for adult and pediatric patients, and 1 of only 51 in the country to earn this highest distinction from the NCI. Vanderbilt-Ingram ranks in the top 10 matrix cancer centers nationwide for cancer research grant support, receiving $141 million in annual cancer-related funding.

“Hundreds of people made this CCSG renewal possible, and I am so appreciative of their hard work,” said Pietenpol, director of Vanderbilt-Ingram, executive vice president for research at VUMC, the B.F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology and holder of the Brock Family Directorship in Career Development. “I am proud to work alongside highly talented and dedicated deputy directors, program leaders, associate directors, clinical teams, and researchers dedicated to lessening the cancer burden. The culture of collaboration at Vanderbilt-Ingram, combined with research excellence and high-quality patient care, are the distinctive capabilities with which we lead.”

Currently, 283 faculty members are engaged in Vanderbilt-Ingram’s research and clinical initiatives. Theresa Sberna, chief business officer for Vanderbilt-Ingram and deputy director for strategy and analytics, and Julie Schaum, director for research administration, lead essential administrative and operational functions for the cancer research enterprise and led the development of systems to orchestrate the collection and presentation of data for the renewal application and site visit.

For patients, an NCI Comprehensive Care Center provides promising new therapies, including clinical trials and a care program focused on excellence. Vanderbilt-Ingram was among the first cancer centers to offer new immunotherapies and targeted therapies, and during the past five years, has led or partnered in 31 FDA-registration clinical trials.

Working in partnership with Meharry Medical College, Tennessee State University, and Federally Qualified Health Centers, Vanderbilt-Ingram continues to identify and address racial disparities in cancer incidence and care. It  houses multiple NCI-designated Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE), including breast and gastrointestinal cancers.


AACR convenes conference on health disparities

The American Association for Cancer Research, in association with the AACR Minorities in Cancer Research Council, will host a virtual meeting on cancer health disparities Oct. 2-4, 2020.

The Virtual 13th AACR Conference on the Science of Cancer Health Disparities in Racial/Ethnic Minorities and the Medically Underserved aims to advance the understanding of, and ultimately help to eliminate, the disparities that represent a major public health problem in the United States.

The meeting program will include discussion of diversity and inclusion in clinical trials; disparities in cancer risk and treatment among the LGBTQ population; cancer prevention and screening in adolescents and young adults; precision oncology in diverse populations; financial toxicity for cancer patients; the impact COVID-19 has had on patients with cancer; diversifying the cancer research workforce; and more.

The full program is available here. The meeting will build on the themes and data reported in the inaugural AACR Cancer Disparities Progress Report, published Sept. 16, 2020. Read the full report.


Melanoma researchers at UCLA receive $13M grant from NIH

UCLA researchers have received a $13 million grant from NIH to find new ways to overcome melanoma resistance to some of the most promising targeted therapies and immunotherapies.

“While these therapies have transformed the way people with melanoma are treated, only about 40% to 50% of people respond to the therapies, and that is not good enough,” said Antoni Ribas, one of the principal investigators on the grant who is a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and director of the Tumor Immunology Program at the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The five-year grant will allow researchers to to focus on the biology of therapies and will fund clinical trials to develop new combination therapies to defeat melanoma resistance.

Along with Ribas, Roger Lo, a professor of medicine and director of the melanoma clinic in the UCLA Division of Dermatology, and Thomas Graeber, a professor of molecular and medical pharmacology and director of the UCLA Metabolomics Center, are leading the effort.

The interdisciplinary research team, whose members have been collaborating for over a decade, will be focusing on three translational research projects:

Understanding the resistance of NRAS-mutated melanomas: Lo is investigating ways to block multiple resistance routes in melanomas with the NRAS gene mutation and to combine and sequence targeted therapies and immunotherapies. By characterizing and co-targeting genomic, epigenomic, proteomic and immunologic alterations that resist therapies, the team will be able to reveal the landscape of resistance.

Targeting ferroptosis to block the de-differentiation resistance escape route: One way cancers escape targeted treatments is to de-differentiate, or change the type of cell they are into an earlier stage of development. This change of identity allows the cells to be less dependent on the pathway that was otherwise being effectively targeted. Graeber is investigating cell subtypes that de-differentiate and have shown sensitivity to a type of self-inflicted cell death called ferroptosis, which can potentially block melanoma cells attempting to take this escape route. Using ferroptosis-inducing drugs in combination with current standard treatments could potentially strengthen the response rate.

Studying resistance mechanisms in PD-1 blockade immunotherapy: This project, led by Ribas, is looking at how interferon-gamma, an immune response–stimulating signaling molecule that helps activate immune cells, guides the treatment response in people with advanced melanoma who are treated with one of the leading immunotherapies, called PD-1 blockade. Understanding how interferon-gamma genes work can potentially be used to predict a response to immunotherapy and for rationalizing new combination treatments that induce interferon signaling that can be used to treat more patients.


Ohio State receives $10M NCI grant to study impact of COVID-19 in first responders

Researchers at The Ohio State University College of Medicine and The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center have been awarded a five-year, $10 million grant from NCI to study the long-term, longitudinal impact of COVID-19 on first responders, health care workers and the general population.

“This is one of the largest grants ever awarded to the College of Medicine,” said Peter Mohler, chief scientific officer for Ohio State Wexner Medical Center and vice dean for research for the Ohio State College of Medicine. It will fund the Center for Serological Testing to Improve Outcomes from Pandemic COVID-19 (STOP-COVID) at Ohio State, a new Serological Sciences Center of Excellence.

With this funding, researchers will learn more about the interactions among exposure risks, transmission, immune responses, disease severity, protection and barriers to testing/vaccination, with the goal of improving population health and clinical outcomes in the face of COVID-19.

“The Center to STOP-COVID will address some of the biggest questions in the field, such as ‘Can people be re-infected with COVID-19 once positive?’ ‘Why are some people more at risk for being infected and symptomatic?’ ‘Does infection with closely related viruses provide immunity or worsen COVID-19 disease outcomes?’ This whole scientific platform is based directly on the data our researchers collected during the earliest days of the pandemic, in March and early April,” Mohler said.

The Center to STOP-COVID will utilize state-of-the-art serological and molecular tests, developed at Ohio State, in a long-term study of first responders, a group at continual high risk of the specific coronavirus that causes COVID-19, as well as their household contacts. It is projected that nearly 2,000 participants will be followed over the five-year period.

“Stopping the spread of COVID-19 will require research that cross-cuts basic, translational and applied sciences,” said Eugene Oltz, chair of the Department of Microbial Infection and Immunity, and lead co-principal investigator for this study.

Joining Oltz as co-principal investigators of the center are Ashish R. Panchal, a professor of emergency medicine, who specializes in prehospital care at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center; Linda J. Saif, a world-renowned expert on coronaviruses at Ohio State’s College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences and College of Veterinary Medicine, and Ann Scheck McAlearney, a professor of family and community medicine at Ohio State with expertise in population health and applied health services research.

The center is partnering with the Columbus Police Department and Columbus Division of Fire, collaborations that were forged by Daniel Bachmann, associate professor of emergency medicine, and Gerard Lozanski, professor of pathology; Iris Velasco, industrial hygienist with Columbus Police; and Robert Lowe, medical director with Columbus Division of Fire. Center co-investigators include 46 interdisciplinary team members throughout five colleges across the university.

Researchers will learn more about critical aspects of transmission in both asymptomatic and symptomatic individuals; immune, host and viral determinants of disease outcome; and factors associated with immune protection, including vaccines. They will also identify best practices for communication of test results and information about COVID-19 to improve understanding of risk, transmission and protection, while reducing access barriers to testing and future vaccination opportunities.

“We’re excited to establish this important STOP-COVID Center. We’ll also integrate our center with the broader SeroNet community, consisting of National Cancer Institute testing agencies and other recipients of these grants. This will be invaluable in keeping abreast of current COVID-19 research,” said Oltz, who is also a member of the cancer biology research program in Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center.


Ohio State receives $9.1M NCI Grant renewal to support cancer retrovirus research

The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute and The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine have been awarded a five-year, $9.1 million grant Program Project Grant renewal from NCI.

The PPG grant has been continually funded since 2003 and will allow investigators from the OSUCCC – James, CVM and collaborators at the Washington University – St. Louis Siteman Cancer Center to continue studying retrovirus models of cancer.

The grant renewal extends through 2025 and is led by principal investigator Patrick Green, associate director for basic research at the OSUCCC – James and director of the Center for Retrovirus Research at the CVM.

The goal of this PPG is to use a human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1) T-cell immortalization model to gain an understanding of the microenvironmental, cellular and viral factors that lead to adult T-cell (ATL) leukemia.

“This is a powerful area of basic research we expect to result in new targets for the  treatment of HTLV-1 infection, ATL, and related leukemias and lymphomas,” says Green, who also serves as professor and associate dean for research and graduate studies in the CVM and holds the Robert H. Rainier Chair in Industrial Veterinary Medicine and Research.

“This grant has allowed our multidisciplinary team to advance understanding of how retrovirus proteins contribute to cell immortalization, how retroviruses cause cellular changes that position infected cells to progress to metastatic cancer, and how ATL cells contribute to paraneoplastic disease syndromes and can be targeted for anticancer therapy,” Green adds. “These are important discoveries, and this renewed funding with allow us to continue momentum in this area of cancer research.”

The collaborative research grant is organized around three research projects and three research cores.

Projects include:

  • Role of HTLV-1 HBZ in Transformation and Disease
    (Leader: Patrick Green; Co-I: Amanda Panfil, PhD)

This project will characterize the mechanism of HBZ gene products relating to HTLV-1 infection, viral latency and emergence of ATL. The major focus is on identifying and characterizing cellular binding partners that interact with HBZ messenger RNA (mRNA) and HBZ protein, and to determine the impact of those interactions on viral pathogenesis.

  • Effect of HTLV-1 Viral Oncogenes on the Bone Marrow Microenvironment in ATL
    (Leader: Katherine Weilbaecher; Co-I: Deborah Veis)

This project will define the molecular mechanisms that HTLV-1-transformed cells use to interact with cells in the bone microenvironment, which include osteoblasts, bone marrow stromal cells, macrophage lineage cells and osteoclasts. Researchers also will focus on the relationship between HTLV-1 HBZ gene expression and both the Wnt non-canonical pathway (involving Wnt5a) and the HPSE gene. This work will utilize mouse transgenic and humanized animal models to evaluate the relevance of these pathways on HTLV-1 bone pathology.

  • Role of CTCF in HTLV-1 Replication and Transformation
    (Leader: Lee Ratner)

Researchers will determine if and how the CTCF gene modulates the behavior of HTLV-1-infected T cells as it relates to virus expression, HBZ gene regulation, methylation of provirus elements, site of virus integration and effect on surrounding host genes.

The PPG also supports administrative/biostatistics, virus vector and animal research cores relating to this ongoing retrovirus research.

Co-investigators in the PPG include: Amanda Panfil, PhD, Stefan Niewiesk, DVM, PhD, and Krista La Perle, DVM, PhD, from the CVM;  Kristine Yoder, PhD, Soledad Fernandez, and Lianbo Yu, PhD, from Ohio State’s College of Medicine; Amanda MacFarlane, PhD, from the OSUCCC – James; and Lee Ratner, MD, PhD, Katherine Weilbaecher, MD, and Deborah Veis, MD, PhD, from Washington University. Panfil, Niewiesk and La Perle are in the Leukemia Research Program at the OSUCCC – James, where Yoder is in the Molecular Carcinogenesis and Chemoprevention Program, and Fernandez is in the Cancer Biology Program.


Cancer genomic screening program LC-SCRUM-Asia adopts latest Thermo Fisher Scientific NGS solutions

LC-SCRUM-Asia, a cancer genomic screening program, has selected Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Ion Torrent Genexus System and Oncomine Precision Assay, a pan-cancer panel, to advance precision medicine in Asia.

The next-generation sequencing solutions will be used in two prospective, observational projects to support the development of future therapeutics and diagnostics for non-small cell lung cancer.

The Lung Cancer Genomic Screening Project for Individualized Medicine in Asia aims to overcome challenges in establishing precision medicine for patients with NSCLC through large-scale genetic screening and monitoring. The Lung Cancer Genomic Screening Project for Individualized Medicine—Molecular Testing for Resistant Tumors to Systemic Therapy (LC-SCRUM-TRY), launched on September 28, is designed to examine drug resistance in NSCLC.

“The studies will use the Genexus System and the Oncomine Precision Assay for rapid molecular profiling results,” said Dr. Koichi Goto, chief of the Department of Thoracic Oncology, National Cancer Center Hospital East, who is leading the cancer clinical trials. “The speed of NGS-based molecular profiling tests is becoming increasingly important. We believe these solutions, designed to deliver results quickly, will transform the field of precision oncology.” 

Thermo Fisher’s Ion Torrent Genexus System features an automated specimen-to-report workflow that delivers results economically in a single day. The Oncomine Precision Assay, which is designed to detect key biomarkers from formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded (FFPE) tissue and liquid biopsy specimens, contains more than 50 cancer-related biomarkers and has the lowest sample input requirements on the market for detection of both DNA and RNA variants.

The selection of the Genexus System and Oncomine Precision Assay represent an extension of Thermo Fisher’s ongoing collaborations with LC-SCRUM and Goto to make precision medicine solutions available in Japan. Since 2015, LC-SCRUM has adopted the Oncomine Comprehensive Assay* for use in the first three phases of clinical trials. In addition, Goto was instrumental in supporting Thermo Fisher’s efforts to gain approval in Japan for the Oncomine Dx Target Test, the first NGS companion diagnostic test approved by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to simultaneously detect multiple biomarkers clinically associated with NSCLC.


ACS CAN: Executive order on pre-existing condition protections unlikely to help cancer patients and survivors

As part of a broader health care package, the Trump administration Sept. 24 issued an executive order to preserve health coverage protections for people with pre-existing conditions should the Supreme Court invalidate the Affordable Care Act.

A statement from Lisa Lacasse, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network follows:

“The executive order on pre-existing conditions falls far short of the protections already in place under the Affordable Care Act. The ACA’s rules against insurance denials or sky-high premiums based on someone’s health history have, for the last decade, been an essential lifeline to millions of American cancer patients and survivors.

“These patients cannot go back to a world wherein their ability to access lifesaving treatment is tied to an insurance market that is again allowed to restrict, rescind or reject their care. Should the administration succeed in its case to throw out the law, the executive order will offer no guaranteed patient protections in its place.”

Copyright (c) 2020 The Cancer Letter Inc.