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Cancer Research Institute returns to Houston with an Immunotherapy Patient Summit for the Third Time

October 28, 2019

Rapid advances in the field of cancer immunotherapy have led to a growing need for patient and caregiver education. Clear, unbiased information on immunotherapy treatments and clinical trials is essential to improving the lives of people affected by cancer.

In 2016, the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) initiated the Immunotherapy Patient Summit Series to fill this knowledge gap. Each summit provides a unique opportunity for patients, caregivers, and advocates to meet each other, hear immunotherapy patient stories, and engage with the field’s leading medical experts.

On Saturday, October 26, 2019, 120 people attended CRI's third summit in Houston, hosted at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Brian Brewer, CRI’s director of marketing and communications, opened the day with a brief overview of CRI’s impact on the field of cancer immunology through the funding of basic, translational, and clinical research over the past 66 years. 

Brian Brewer welcomes attendees to the third CRI Immunotherapy Patient Summit in Houston, held at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Photo by Ranjani Groth
Brian Brewer welcomes attendees to the 2019 CRI Immunotherapy Patient Summit in Houston, held at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Photo by Ranjani Groth.

Dr. Adi Diab, clinical investigator in the Department of Melanoma at MD Anderson Cancer Center, then presented on the basics of the immune system and new immunotherapeutic strategies. He reflected on how important it is, as a healthcare professional, to understand the true physical, emotional, and financial costs when working with patients and their families on treatment plans.

Dr. Adi Diab discusses the basics of immunotherapy. Photo by Ranjani Groth
Dr. Adi Diab discusses the basics of immunotherapy. Photo by Ranjani Groth.

Dr. Diab then moderated a panel with Drs. Jianjun Gao (MD Anderson Cancer Center), Andrew Sikora (Baylor College of Medicine), and Valentina Hoyos Velez (Baylor College of Medicine) on the latest scientific and clinical research in immunotherapy. Dr. Gao discussed the importance of understanding biomarkers to provide bladder and kidney cancer patients with targeted therapies. Dr. Sikora was excited about the future of immunotherapy in head and neck cancer and pointed to the growing number of combination clinical trials available to patients as firstline treatment.

Immunotherapy Research Updates Panel: Drs. Adi Diab (moderator), Jianjun Gao, Andrew Sikora, and Valentina Hoyos Velez. Photo by Ranjani Groth
Immunotherapy Research Updates Panel, LR: Drs. Andrew Sikora, Valentina Hoyos Velez, Jianjun Gao, and Adi Diab (moderator). Photo by Ranjani Groth.

Dale Biggs, a CRI ImmunoAdvocate, shared his experience as a skin cancer veteran. He began by thanking CRI, his oncologists, and his wife, Donna. Dale discussed his experience receiving PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor called Libtayo® (cemiplimab-rwlc) for cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma on a clinical trial. He reflected on how easy immunotherapy felt when compared to surgery and chemotherapy, emphasizing that the drug eliminated all of the tumors on his head just six weeks after his first immunotherapy infusion. 

Dale Biggs sharing his experience with immunotherapy. Photo by Ranjani Groth
Dale Biggs shares his experience with immunotherapy. Photo by Ranjani Groth.

Summit attendees continued the conversation with each other and with speakers over lunch. One attendee noted that she loved how accessible all of the expert panelists were during lunch. Another attendee revealed that he had never had an opportunity to meet with a doctor outside of his appointments, adding, “this is really a unique program.... I did not know about all the advances that researchers have made and the different options [we] have nowadays.”

Throughout the day, attendees had the opportunity to meet confidentially with clinical trial navigators to review their medical histories, to learn about trials in which they may be able to enroll, and to find out how to contact trial coordinators.

Summit attendee meets with a clinical trial navigator. Photo by Ranjani Groth.
Summit attendee meets with a clinical trial navigator. Photo by Ranjani Groth.

Attendees gathered together again in the afternoon, which began with a presentation on clinical trials from Mr. Brewer. He emphasized that signing a consent form for a trial does not lock you into the protocol, and you are free to change your mind for any reason and at any time. Mr. Brewer then invited Isolde Artz, Samir Tanios, and Ron Speidel to discuss their experiences with immunotherapy on the Patient Perspectives Panel.

Moderator Brian Brewer (left) with panelists Isolde Artz, Samir Tanios, and Ron Speidel. Photo by Ranjani Groth
Moderator Brian Brewer (left) with panelists Isolde Artz, Samir Tanios, and Ron Speidel. Photo by Ranjani Groth.

Samir Tanios was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma in September 2018 and told he had six to nine months to live. He explained his oncologist at Baylor College of Medicine therefore recommended he skip chemotherapy and begin treatment with a checkpoint inhibitor, nivolumab (Opdivo®), through BMS’s Patient Assistance Program. Roughly two months into treatment, and after initial side effects including type 1 diabetes, Samir began feeling better. He was able to discontinue his morphine and begin to exercise again. He explained, “I am getting my life back to normal.... You have to be behind yourself and be optimistic.” 

Samir Tanios at the Immunotherapy Patient Summit. Photo by Ranjani Groth
Samir Tanios at the Immunotherapy Patient Summit. Photo by Ranjani Groth.

Ron Speidel, who was diagnosed with high-grade urothelial bladder cancer in 2013, discussed his experience collaborating with his oncologist, Dr. Jianjun Gao, throughout his treatment. In February 2015, after Ron had endured surgery and chemotherapy, he was told he had one year to live. A couple months later, Dr. Gao called Ron to let him know he may be eligible for a new clinical trial combining nivolumab (Opdivo®) and ipilimumab (Yervoy®). Ron recalled that he had no fears joining the trial, explaining, “if I can do something to help someone else, let’s go for it.” Today, six years after diagnosis and four years out of immunotherapy treatment, he remains stable. He recently joined the survivorship program at MD Anderson. Ron smiled and thanked Dr. Gao, who sat in the audience, “I owe my life to Dr. Gao.”

Ron Speidel (left) with his oncologist Dr. Jian Jun Gao and his wife, Brenda Speidel. Photo by Ranjani Groth
Ron Speidel (left) with his oncologist Dr. Jianjun Gao and his wife, Brenda Speidel. Photo by Ranjani Groth.

Isolde Artz, who was diagnosed with advanced melanoma in 2017, discussed how difficult it was to gain access to the immunotherapy drug that saved her life in her hometown of Mexico City. She implored attendees, “I invite you all to have hope and don’t give up.”

Isolde explained how grateful she felt to the Cancer Research Institute for providing educational programs like the CRI Immunotherapy Patient Summit Series. She described her experience attending the 2017 New York City Immunotherapy Patient Summit where she was able to meet experts and feel empowered and embraced by the patient community. She also expressed gratitude to her oncologist, Dr. Antonio Alfeiran Ruiz at the National Cancer Institute Mexico, who had recommended the PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor pembrolizumab (Keytruda®) and helped advocate for her.

Today, Isolde is passionate about patient advocacy. She recently founded IMMUNE, the first melanoma foundation in Mexico.
 
Isolde Artz at the Immunotherapy Patient Summit. Photo by Ranjani Groth
Isolde Artz at the Immunotherapy Patient Summit. Photo by Ranjani Groth.

When panelists were asked by a member of the audience what fighting cancer meant to them, each shared their own perspective. Samir explained, “My wife and my daughter were all there, pushing for me to make it. Because of that I started feeling that everyone was behind me. I started fighting more. I wanted to live…. Fighting means you should do whatever you can do to help your cause.”

Dr. Gao added that, perhaps paradoxically, fighting cancer may mean sleeping more, as loss of sleep weakens your immune system, making your body more hospitable to cancer.

Attendees at the Cancer Research Institute Immunotherapy Patient Summit in Houston. Photo by Ranjani Groth
Attendees at the CRI Immunotherapy Patient Summit in Houston. Photo by Ranjani Groth.

The day closed with four breakout sessions focusing on breast cancer, genitourinary cancer, head and neck cancer, and general immunotherapy research. The breakout sessions allowed attendees to take a deeper dive into questions with Drs. Hoyos, Gao, Sikora, and Diab.

Dr. Hoyos met with patients to discuss breast cancer and immunotherapy. She discussed how treatments combining immunotherapy with other approved modalities was promising for breast cancer treatment. Photo by Ranjani Groth
Dr. Hoyos meets with patients to discuss immunotherapy for breast cancer. She discusses how combining immunotherapy with other approved treatments was promising approach for breast cancer. Photo by Ranjani Groth.

Dr. Gao opened the genitourinary breakout session by inviting attendees to share their experiences with cancer. Between questions, he took time to describe common terms and concepts that patients and caregivers might hear throughout treatment. He explained that certain immune checkpoint inhibitors are most effective when used to treat cancers that have more genetic mutations. For example, Keytruda (pembrolizumab) is used to treat cancers that have microsatellite instability-high (MSI-H) or mismatch repair deficient (dMMR).

Dr. Gao answers questions about relevant biomarkers in kidney and bladder cancer during the genitourinary cancer breakout session. Photos by Ranjani Groth
Dr. Gao answers questions about relevant biomarkers in kidney and bladder cancer during the genitourinary cancer breakout session. Photos by Ranjani Groth.

Thank you to our wonderful host and institutional partner, MD Anderson Cancer Center, and to all of our sponsors and educational partners who helped to make the summit possible and promote it to community members in the Houston area. We’re looking forward to our next Immunotherapy Patient Summit on November 16, 2019, in Baltimore, with our partner the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins. 

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