Two new faculty members have joined the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center to help launch groundbreaking immunotherapy clinical trials that will test an experimental treatment in which patients’ own immune cells are genetically engineered to fight their cancer.
The clinical research program will be the first of its kind at UNC Lineberger and in North Carolina, and is unique to only a handful of academic medical centers around the country. Gianpietro Dotti, MD, and Barbara Savoldo, MD, PhD, have joined UNC Lineberger from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston to help lead the opening of the trials. At Baylor, they worked together for more than 10 years studying this treatment approach.
“UNC Lineberger is leading a major initiative to harness the power of the immune system to treat cancer,” said Ned Sharpless, MD, director of UNC Lineberger. “The addition of Drs. Dotti and Savoldo is another major step in allowing us to offer this life-changing therapy for patients in North Carolina and beyond.”
The type of treatment they will be testing, called T-cell therapy, involves re-engineering a type of the patient’s own disease-fighting white blood cells, called T-cells, to fight cancer. T-cells are taken from the patient’s blood and altered in the lab so they can recognize and kill tumor cells. T-cells are altered to recognize cancerous cells by inserting an engineered gene that allows them to recognize and selectively attack cancerous cells. To insert the gene into the T-cells, scientists take advantage of the natural ability of certain viruses to insert their genes into host cells.
Dotti and Savoldo will begin their research focusing on Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, two types of blood cancer marked by the uncontrolled growth of certain white blood cells. They also plan to open a trial for patients with leukemia. Efforts will also focus on expanding this type of treatment to patients with solid tumors that are currently difficult to treat with standard chemotherapy such as pancreatic, gastric and head and neck cancers.
“What was once available in only a handful of cancer centers will now be available to patients in North Carolina,” said Jon Serody, MD, associate director of translational science at UNC Lineberger and medical oncologist in the UNC Lineberger Leukemia and Lymphoma Program. Serody led the efforts to expand the program and bring Dotti and Savoldo to UNC.
“When Jon called us and explained his vision for the program, we were very impressed by the determination to expand the immunotherapy efforts and offer these types of trials here at UNC,” Dotti said.
Savoldo adds, “We are thrilled to be joining the amazing team of cancer researchers at UNC Lineberger and look forward to the day when we can open these trials in the N.C. Cancer Hospital.”
Renovations are currently underway on a new “clean” facility to develop the engineered T-cells that will be used to trigger the patient’s immune system. While the exact timing of trials to be opened will depend on the completion and approval of the facility, Dotti and Savoldo hope to have trials open by 2016.
In addition to joining UNC Lineberger, Dotti has an appointment at the UNC School of Medicine Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and Savoldo has joined the UNC School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics.
The faculty recruitment as well as the investment in infrastructure needed to support the clinical research initiative are both made possible with support from the University Cancer Research Fund, a landmark investment from the state of North Carolina created by the N.C. General Assembly to support cancer research.
“The launch of these amazing, potentially life-saving clinical trials requires a major, long-term commitment from UNC Lineberger,” Sharpless said. “That would not have been possible without the support of UCRF.”