Immune to Cancer: The CRI Blog




Translating Cancer Immunotherapy Into COVID-19 Medicine

UPDATED: December 16, 2020

Translational research bridges that difficult gap between the laboratory and the clinic, where basic biological research that works in mouse models or computer simulations is used to develop therapies that are then applied to real people, in whom they may work wonders—or fail to be effective. 

When facing the global COVID-19 pandemic, doctors and scientists are building these translational bridges as rapidly as possible and making leaps across the gap while guided by their extensive understanding of virology and immunology. 

Investigators in the Cancer Research Institute's translational research program—Clinic and Laboratory Integration Program (CLIP)—were quick to make these leaps and leverage their cancer immunotherapy expertise in efforts against COVID-19. 

In addition to her study of the molecular effects of DNA damage and repair on human T cell signaling and activation, the laboratory of CRI CLIP Investigator Carrie L. Lucas, PhD, of Yale University School of Medicine is studying the new, life-threatening ‘multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children’ (MIS-C). Often compared to Kawasaki disease, this illness occurs in pediatric patients weeks after seemingly asymptomatic infection with SARS-CoV-2 and is characterized by a severe inflammatory response throughout the lymphatic system. The Lucas lab is looking for genetic susceptibilities and relevant immune mechanisms using a variety of systematic, high-throughput analytical approaches. Dr. Lucas expects this work will provide data to help predict, prevent, and treat MIS-C after SARS-CoV-2 infection or vaccination.

Two CRI CLIP Investigators—Hilary Ann Coller, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and Vinodh Pillai, MD, PhD, of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP)—are extending their current CRI-funded research projects into the study of cytokine storm, the overactive immune response found in severe cases of COVID-19.

Dr. Coller is investigating how autophagy—a cellular recycling process—in the non-cancerous cells within tumors might influence the response to immunotherapy. Her team believes to have found an important model for understanding how different genes can predispose people to certain responses, including damaging cytokine storms, and plans to test the effects of age and hydroxychloroquine in this model.

Dr. Pillai is studying levels of CD19 in the context of CAR T cell therapy for children with B cell leukemia. His recent publication in Blood Advances demonstrated that CAR T cell therapy is effective for patients with B-ALL that expresses low levels of the target CD19 protein, but is impacted by prior treatment with bispecific antibody immunotherapy (specifically, a drug called blinatumomab). This information will help clinicians better strategize treatment options and protocols for patients, especially given prior treatment history. Cytokine storm is a common side effect of CAR T cell therapy treatment, so extending his study into this area may yield further insights into managing severe COVID-19 cases.

CRI grantees also translate dense scientific information for the public. CRI CLIP Investigator Susan M. Kaech, PhD, discussed the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech with KUSI News.

We thank these scientists for finding ways to translate their cancer research into COVID-19 treatments. 

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