Immune to Cancer: The CRI Blog




How CRI’s Immunotherapy Breakthroughs and Research are Shaping Cancer Treatment and Prevention

Today, cancer immunotherapy is the most forward-thinking and innovative form of cancer treatment for patients. Cancer immunotherapy is especially effective with treating melanoma, lung, breast, and several other types of cancer. When possible, however, there is a preferable option compared to treatment: the prevention of cancer entirely.

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CRI scientists are committed to groundbreaking cancer immunotherapy research that can benefit the lives of patients and potentially save lives. In addition to research regarding treating existing cancers, some CRI scientists are also working on forward-thinking research that can address cancer prevention and attack cancer at its roots.

CRI Scientists’ Innovative Work and Perspectives on Cancer Treatment and Prevention

1. Cancer Vaccine Discoveries

Elizabeth Jaffee, MD, deputy director of The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins and CRI Scientific Advisory Council associate director, serves on the panel for President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Initiative. Additionally, Dr. Jaffee’s research focuses on novel cancer vaccines, and she has patents for six of them.  Dr. Jaffee foresaw the immense potential of cancer vaccines long before others did. At the 2023 CRI Patient Immunotherapy Summit, she succinctly outlined the transformative power of these vaccines.

“Vaccines are the biggest success story of the 20th century other than penicillin,” Dr. Jaffee says. “We have suggested developing new technologies and new computational approaches that can take all of the new data we are generating and put it into a framework, biologically, that tells us which signals a tumor is sending out to cells around it to cause it to protect the tumor. Through that information we can develop drugs that can intercept those signals. We can now take vaccines, combine them with drugs, and we can make a difference. We are seeing vaccines close to approval for cancers like melanoma. We are going to see this happening more and more over the next five years.”

2. Measuring Immunotherapy Response in a Single Drop of Blood

 Valsamo (Elsa) Anagnostou, MD, PhD, director of the thoracic oncology biorepository at Johns Hopkins, leader of Precision Oncology Analytics, co-leader of the Johns Hopkins Molecular Tumor Board, co-director of the Lung Cancer Precision Medicine Center of Excellence, CRI Torrey Coast Foundation GEMINI CLIP Investigator, and CRI Clinical Accelerator is at the forefront of leveraging cutting-edge technologies to advance diagnosis and therapy response. Her pioneering work has unleashed the power of liquid biopsies to test ctDNA (circulating tumor DNA) in patient blood, revolutionizing our ability to gauge patient responses to treatment.  Liquid biopsies involve drawing small samples of blood from patients for testing. “ctDNA response is particularly informative to understand the complexity of stable disease on imaging, which represents a sizable fraction of patients in whom imaging fails to timely and accurately detect the magnitude of therapeutic response,” Dr. Anagnostou says. “ctDNA response correlated with tumor size seen on imaging, which is the gold standard for monitoring response to cancer treatments and seemed to be better correlated with survival.”

Liquid biopsies could be the first step in preventing excessive follow-up procedures and scans. This is a technology that can further be developed to test for markers in blood that can indicate presence of undetectable tumors or the presence of cancer cells even before they become large enough tumors to be detected using traditional scans.

3. The Tumor Microenvironment Holds the Answer to Cancer

Max Krummel, PhD, Robert E. Smith Endowed Chair in Experimental Pathology at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), Professor, Department of Pathology at UCSF, and former CRI Investigator Award recipient, emphasizes the need to broaden our perspective on cancer prevention beyond the current focus on boosting T cell responses through checkpoint blockade. While acknowledging the significance of enhancing T cell activity, Dr. Krummel sees an equally promising avenue in understanding and targeting the tumor microenvironment (TME). The TME is comprised of the non-cancerous cells, blood vessels, and molecules that surround and sustain a tumor cell. He highlights, “We have started to think about the fundamental biology of the tumor and how to target [that].” This shift in focus towards comprehending the intricacies of the tumor microenvironment underscores the importance of exploring diverse approaches in our efforts to combat cancer effectively.

In the U.S. alone, about 600,000 people die from cancer annually. While treatment methods have improved in recent years, particularly with immunotherapy, there is no silver bullet for cancer prevention, there are several measures people can take to try and safeguard against a potential cancer diagnosis (via the Mayo Clinic).

Measures That can Help Prevent Cancer

1. Screen Early

Different populations are at greater risk of diagnosis depending on the type of cancer. For former and current smokers, screening against lung cancer is critical. Another example is that for women between 40-75 years old, having a mammogram every two years is greatly encouraged to guard against breast cancer.

Additionally, there are also tests that can detect specific cancer-related mutations that are routinely performed to determine if someone is at risk for cancer.

2. Limit Exposure to Harmful UV Rays

Limiting the amount of time your skin is exposed to the sun and avoiding tanning booths is a good way to safeguard against skin cancer.  If you are going to be in the sun, applying sunscreen and covering your skin as best you can be good safety measures.

3. Consider Cancer Vaccines

There are currently four distinct preventative cancer vaccines for HPV and HBV-associated cancers that have been approved by the FDA. Viral infections have proven responsible for several cancers, and preventative cancer vaccines are an important tool to help thwart off cancer before it can develop.

Additionally, there are two approved therapeutic cancer vaccines for bladder and prostate cancers. These vaccines help the immune system identify cancer cells so they can be eliminated.

4. Maintain a Healthy Diet

Certain dietary measures, such as reducing one’s intake of red meat, can help reduce an individual’s risk of a cancer diagnosis. A healthy diet is one that is focused on fruits and vegetables, while avoiding refined sugars and excess animal fat.

Between new developments in cancer immunotherapy on the horizon and greater education of the public regarding preventative measures, there is potential for a greater collective focus on cancer prevention, and therefore, a world immune to cancer.

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