UChicago symposium focuses on advances in cancer immunotherapies

March 17, 2015

The Ben May Department for Cancer Research at the University of Chicago will hold a day-long symposium on cancer immunotherapy for physicians and researchers.

The April 6 meeting will examine the promise of these evolving therapies and present ideas about overcoming hurdles and expanding the number of patients who can benefit from immunotherapy treatment. The forum will bring together authorities on the basic biology of these drugs with expert physicians who are transitioning them to clinical use.

The symposium takes place from 8:15 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the University of Chicago's Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.

"We now see these drugs as game changers," said symposium organizer Thomas Gajewski, MD, PhD, professor in the Ben May Department for Cancer Research at the University of Chicago, who specializes in the care of patients with advanced melanoma, one of the first targets for immune-based treatments. "They are truly effective in many patients."

Immunotherapies enable the body's immune system to fight tumors. The drugs sparking the most interest are "checkpoint inhibitors." These block the proteins that cancer cells use to disarm an immune response. Checkpoint inhibitors are able to "take the brakes off the immune system," Gajewski said, allowing T cells, potent anti-cancer warriors, to attack and destroy tumor cells.

Three of these inhibitors have been approved in the U.S., all for advanced melanoma. All three--ipilimumab, nivolumab and pembrolizumab, marketed as Yervoy®, Opdivo® and Keytruda®--are being tested as a treatment for many other cancers.

In March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved nivolumab for patients with advanced (metastatic) squamous non-small cell lung cancer. Even though they are still considered experimental for most cancers, "they may already be the most active single cancer therapeutics we have," Gajewski said. "That's why we moved this symposium from a lecture hall to an auditorium that seats almost 500 people."

The University of Chicago has multiple checkpoint inhibitor clinical trials underway, including studies of breast, bladder, lung, mesothelioma, head and neck cancer, and others.

The next step is learning "how to combine these drugs," Gajewski said. "We want to find synergies, ways to go after two targets at once, to get the maximum effect out of each therapy."

Another immune-based approach, focused on B-cell leukemias, involves extracting large numbers of a patient's T cells and genetically altering them outside the body. This process involves inserting a "chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)," a protein that binds to a cell-surface marker called CD19, found on many leukemic cells. When caregivers infuse the CAR T cells back into the patient, they continue to multiply in the body and attack cells displaying the target.

Both approaches have produced high response rates, durable remissions, and, in some cases, significant immune-mediated side effects. These require close monitoring. Early detection and aggressive treatment can reduce immune-mediated complications.

These agents are also quite expensive. At $30,000 per injection, a typical course of Yervoy therapy costs $120,000. Opdivo runs about $140,000 for a year of therapy and Keytruda $150,000. Estimated cost just for the T cell expansion necessary for CAR therapies ranges from $25,000 to $50,000 per patient. An entire course of treatment could cost an estimated $300,000.

The symposium's keynote speaker will be James Allison, PhD, head of immunology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, a pioneer in the field. In the mid-1990s, Allison discovered the first checkpoint inhibitor, a finding that paved the way for the development of Bristol-Myers's ipilimumab, the first drug ever shown to improve survival in patients with advanced melanoma. He will speak on "Immune Checkpoint Blockade in Cancer Therapy."

Additional speakers include:

The symposium is sponsored by the Ben May Department for Cancer Research at the University of Chicago, the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Institute for Translational Medicine, the Committee on Cancer Biology at the University of Chicago, AbbVie and Ronald Harvey, PhD.

The Cancer Immunotherapy symposium runs from 8:15 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on April 6, 2015, in the Performance Hall at the University of Chicago's Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St. To register for the symposium, or for more information, visit https://benmay.uchicago.edu/event/symposium2015.

University of Chicago Medical Center

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