What timing! Just when our feature on Max Cooper and lamprey immunology was scheduled for publication, the Japan Prize Foundation announced it would honor Cooper and his achievements.
Cooper was one of the founders of modern immunology. We connect his early work with his lab’s more recent focus on lampreys, primitive parasites with surprisingly sophisticated immune systems.
Molecules from animals with exotic immune systems can be big business, as Andrew Joseph from STAT News points out. Pharmaceutical giant Sanofi recently bought a company focused on nanobodies, originally derived from camels, llamas and alpacas, for $4.8 billion.
Lampreys’ variable lymphocyte receptors (VLRs) are their version of antibodies, even though they look quite different in molecular terms. Research on VLRs and their origins may seem impractical. However, Cooper’s team has shown their utility as diagnostic tools, and his colleagues have been weaponizing them, possibly for use in cancer immunotherapy.
CAR-T cells have attracted attention for dramatic elimination of certain types of leukemias from the body and also for harsh side effects and staggering costs; see this opinion piece by Georgia Tech’s Aaron Levine. Now many research teams are scheming about how to apply the approach to other types of cancers. The provocative idea is: replace the standard CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) warhead with a lamprey VLR.
A new PNAS paper from geneticist Tamara Caspary’s lab identifies a possible drug target in medulloblastoma, the most common pediatric brain tumor. Come aboard to understand the obstacles this research seeks to navigate. Emory library link here.
Standard treatment for children with medulloblastoma consists of surgery in combination with radiation and chemotherapy. Alternatives are needed, because survivors can experience side effects such as neurocognitive impairment. One possibility has emerged in the last decade: inhibitors of the Hedgehog pathway, whose aberrant activation drives growth in medulloblastoma.
Medulloblastoma patients are caught “between Scylla and Charybdis”: facing a deadly disease, the side effects of radiation and/or existing Hedgehog inhibitors. From Wikimedia.
As this 2017 Oncotarget paper from St. Jude’s describes, Hedgehog inhibitors are no fun either. In adults, these agents cause muscle spasms, hair loss, distorted sense of taste, fatigue, and weight loss. In a pediatric clinical trial, the St. Jude group observed growth plate fusions, resulting in short stature. The drug described in the paper was approved in 2012 for basal cell carcinoma, a form of cancer whose growth is also driven by the Hedgehog pathway. Basal cell carcinoma is actually the most common form of human cancer, although it is often caught at an early stage that doesn’t require harsh treatment.
Caspary’s lab studies the Hedgehog pathway in early embryonic development. In the PNAS paper, former graduate student Sarah Bay and postdoc Alyssa Long show that targeting a downstream part of the Hedgehog pathway may be a way to avoid problems presented by both radiation/chemo and existing Hedgehog inhibitors. Read more
Kishore Kumar Jella, PhD
Winship Cancer Institute postdoc Kishore Kumar Jella has been invited to speak at the NATO advanced research workshop “BRITE (Biomarkers of Radiation In the Environment): Robust tools for Risk Assessment” in Yerevan, Armenia, on 28-30 November, 2017. The workshop brings together leading international experts to evaluate currently and developing radiation biomarkers for environmental applications.
Jella works in the Departments of Biochemistry and Radiation Oncology under the direction of Professors William S. Dynan and Mohammad K. Khan. He will speak on “Exosomes as Radiation Biomarkers”. He will describe how radiation influences exosome production and how these exosomes influence the immune system. The work has applications both to radiation carcinogenesis and combination radio-immunotherapy.
Jella is supported in part by a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to Dynan.
Exosomes are nano-sized membrane-clothed capsules containing proteins and RNA that are thought to facilitate cell-cell communcation. They were previously implicated in the ability of cancer cells to influence healthy neighbor cells, and have also been proposed as anti-cancer therapeutic vehicles. Jella’s previous research on exosomes and radiation-induced bystander signaling was published in Radiation Research in 2014.
Guest post from Megan McCall at Winship Cancer Institute. It is not very often that a high school student has the opportunity to work in a lab or clinic shadowing a world-renowned doctor, but for the past six weeks, ten Georgia high schoolers have done just that at Winship Cancer Institute.
Summer scholars in Medical Simulation Lab. Photo by Megan McCall.
The Summer Scholars Research Program, now in its 16th year, exposes students to a multitude of experiences, such as research from Winship’s top experts, lectures by doctors from a variety of specialties, and field trips to Grady Memorial Hospital and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The students have also seen different parts of Emory’s campus through visits to the School of Medicine’s Medical Simulation Lab and the Health Sciences Research Library.
The SSRP pairs each student with an oncologist with whom they complete their own research project and get an in-depth look at a specific cancer specialty. The program will culminate on Friday (8:30 am to 12:30 pm, C5012) with the students presenting their projects to an audience of their peers, mentors, and the Winship community.
“Our goal with this program is to engage scholars at a young age and promote their interest in cancer research. I view this program as a critical part of my work and as a critical piece of Winship’s mission,” says program director Jonathon Cohen, MD. “The SSRP is a unique opportunity for Winship researchers to interact with some of the brightest young people out there, many of whom we hope to consider as colleagues in the future.”
The students attend weekly lectures with a wide array of speakers including oncologists, cancer survivors, and statisticians. Guest lecturer and 10-year cancer survivor Carolyn Higgins says, “It is wonderful to see such a fresh example of today’s future doctors.”
In the prostate cancer field, there has been a push to move beyond PSA testing. With urine tests, it may be possible to avoid biopsies for men with suspected prostate cancer.
Martin Sanda, MD is chair of urology and leads Winship’s prostate cancer program
With PSA testing to guide decisions, only one in five men is found via biopsy to have a cancer that is sufficiently aggressive (Gleason score of 7 or higher) to warrant treatment right away.
A recently published paper in JAMA Oncology from urologist Martin Sanda and colleagues in the NCI’s Early Detection Research Network shows the potential of urine testing. Sanda’s team reports that two prostate cancer RNA biomarkers detectable in urine (PCA3 and T2:ERG) could be combined to enhance their discriminatory power and reduce unnecessary biopsies by almost half.
The National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Currents blog has an extensive discussion of the JAMA Oncology paper. Read more
In lung cancer patients who were taking immunotherapy drugs, testing for revived immune cells in their blood partially predicted whether their tumors would shrink. The results were published online by PNAS on April 26.
This finding comes from a small study of 29 patients, who were being treated at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University with drugs blocking the PD-1 pathway, also known as checkpoint inhibitors.
The study supports a straightforward idea: if tumor-specific CD8 T cells appear to respond to the drug (nivolumab, pembrolizumab or atezolizumab), that’s a good sign. This avenue of investigation may also help researchers figure out why some patients do not benefit from checkpoint inhibitor drugs, and how to combine those drugs with other treatments to increase response rates.
While looking for activated immune cells in the blood is not yet predictive enough for routine clinical use, such tests could provide timely information. Monitoring the immune response could potentially help oncologists and patients decide, within just a few weeks of starting immunotherapy drugs, whether to continue with the treatment or combine it with something else, says co-senior author Suresh Ramalingam, MD, Winship’s deputy director.
“We hypothesize that re-activated CD8 T cells first proliferate in the lymph nodes, then transition through the blood and migrate to the inflamed tissue,” says Rafi Ahmed, PhD, director of the Vaccine Center and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar. “We believe some of the activated T cells in patients’ blood may be on their way to the tumor.”
The rest of the Emory Vaccine Center/Winship Cancer Institute press release is here. A few additional points: Read more