Q&A: Understanding our Immunotherapy platform

MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program™ increases the speed at which our experts turn their research into new cancer treatment options for patients. At the core of this ambitious initiative are 10 research platforms, which provide the 13 disease-specific Moon Shots with specialized equipment, knowledge and data analysis tools.

To learn how the platform impacts our immunotherapy research and cancer treatment, we spoke with the Immunotherapy platform team, which is led by Jim Allison, Ph.D., Patrick Hwu, M.D., and Padmanee Sharma, M.D., Ph.D.

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.

One type of immunotherapy, called immune checkpoint inhibitors, provides lasting cures to a subset of patients with specific cancers, including:

Currently, not all patients benefit from immunotherapy, but through clinical trials, our experts are learning how to make this treatment more effective.

How does the platform contribute to our mission of ending cancer?

Our goal is to make immunotherapy a standard treatment option for many more types of cancers and patients. To expand the use of immunotherapy, we’re working to:

  • identify the patients most likely to benefit from current immunotherapies,
  • investigate why immunotherapy works for some patients and types of cancers but not others, and
  • develop new immunotherapies and powerful combinations of existing therapies.

We’re testing tumor and blood samples taken from patients treated on immunotherapy clinical trials to achieve these goals.

The information we gather from analyzing these samples allows us to identify biomarkers that predict the likelihood that a patient will respond to currently available immunotherapies. This information can also guide our laboratory experiments aimed at finding new immunotherapy strategies.

What makes the Immunotherapy platform unique?

Our platform’s proximity to patients and our location within the world’s largest cancer center enables us to bring cutting-edge immunotherapy trials and treatments into the clinic at a relatively quick pace, which is extremely difficult to achieve in an academic research center.

Success in our work requires collecting a large number of tumor and blood samples from patients. In addition, some of the state-of-the art analyses we perform require very fresh samples, so it’s crucial that we have eligible patients nearby.

We also have a unique team of clinicians, physician-scientists, laboratory scientists and bioinformaticians – all of whom interact extremely closely. This collaborative effort provides real-time monitoring of patients across many immunotherapy clinical trials for several cancer types.

These advantages allow us to seamlessly move immunotherapy discoveries made in our research labs to our patients. The platform is also designed to tailor our research strategies in response to observations made in the clinic, so we can continuously improve the immunotherapies we’re bringing to patients.

We view this process as being both “from bench to bedside” as well as the reverse, from the clinic back into the laboratory. This is only possible in a limited number of cancer centers.

How is the platform advancing cancer immunotherapy?

Our platform leads path-changing studies that help uncover the complex biology of immunotherapies, in particular immune checkpoint inhibitors. Our accomplishments include:

What’s next for the Immunotherapy platform?

We would like to see immunotherapy applied earlier in treatment, in combination with traditional therapies, such as radiation, chemotherapy and targeted therapies. These sorts of combinations are already showing promise of eliminating cancer throughout the body and making immunotherapy available for more types of cancers.

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