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Catching Up on Cancer Research with the CRI Anna-Maria Kellen Clinical Accelerator

December 08, 2020

In 2016, Vice President Joseph R. Biden—now President-Elect Biden—launched his National Cancer Moonshot Initiative and sought to learn from experts how best to tackle this deadly threat. As part of those efforts, Biden met with Cancer Research Institute (CRI) chief executive officer Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, Ph.D., among others, and also convened a National Cancer Moonshot Blue Ribbon Panel to formulate a set of aims as a roadmap for the future.

Jill O'Donnell-Tormey speaks at the MSKCC Moonshot panel with VP Joe Biden.
Jill O'Donnell-Tormey speaks at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Cancer Moonshot panel with Vice President Joe Biden in 2016. 

One of the panel’s recommendations was to establish a pan-cancer immune atlas that would help catalyze new research in cancer immunotherapy. CRI quickly jumped on this recommendation and in 2018 launched the CRI iAtlas with the help of Sage Bionetworks and the Institute for Systems Biology.

Since then, the Cancer Research Institute has continued its efforts to advance immunotherapies for all cancers through laboratory and clinical research as well as patient education. Our clinical program, the CRI Anna-Maria Kellen Clinical Accelerator, sponsors clinical trials and produces groundbreaking landscape analyses of the field, which have now been integrated with the CRI iAtlas. 

Immunotherapy is a pillar of former Vice President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot.

To learn more about the CRI’s impact and vision for the future, we spoke with Jia Xin "Annie" Yu, Ph.D., data scientist for the CRI Anna-Maria Kellen Clinical Accelerator.

Arthur N. Brodsky, Ph.D.:

What is the CRI Anna-Maria Kellen Clinical Accelerator, and what does it aim to accomplish?

Annie Yu, Ph.D.:

Our Clinical Accelerator is a venture philanthropy fund whose goal is to advance the next generation of immunotherapies into the clinic, especially those that can fulfill unmet needs in various cancers. To do that, we have spearheaded a number of cutting-edge, early phase clinical trials. We work with other nonprofit organizations as well as pharmaceutical and biotech companies to de-risk these trials so that we share the risk and no one entity has to bear 100 percent of it. Milestones built into these agreements also provide for additional revenue that is fed back into the nonprofit venture fund, thus providing an evergreen model that enables us to fund more trials.

Additionally, we have generated comprehensive Immuno-Oncology Landscape analyses that capture and quantify all the immunotherapies currently under investigation in both the lab and the clinic, so that we know where the unmet needs are and don’t duplicate already ongoing efforts with our precious nonprofit funds.

Arthur N. Brodsky, Ph.D.:

With respect to de-risking trials, this allows for the testing of cutting-edge treatments that might not be explored otherwise, because they don’t necessarily seem like the safest bets by individual companies. By going after these high-risk, high reward approaches that parties might not be willing to take on by themselves, this could presumably lead to more treatments becoming available for patients, right?

Annie Yu, Ph.D.:

Yes. That shared responsibility helps us move forward with some of the more innovative trials. Another way we de-risk is by using science-driven hypotheses based on pre-clinical as well as clinical evidence from leading experts to guide our strategic decision making. This is especially important when it comes to immunotherapy combinations, which it seems will be necessary to tackle many of the harder-to-treat cancers that don’t respond to immunotherapy by itself.

Our incredible Clinical Accelerator Clinical and Scientific Advisory Committee—chaired by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Jedd D. Wolchok, M.D., Ph.D., who led several of the earliest checkpoint immunotherapy trials—also helps to ensure that our dollars are spent as wisely as possible.

Arthur N. Brodsky, Ph.D.:

Yes, it certainly helps to be able to consult with some of the greatest minds in the field, including several who helped usher in the current immunotherapy revolution.

Now, I want to talk about the CRI iAtlas, which was developed in response to a recommendation from the National Cancer Moonshot Blue Ribbon Panel that was part of President-Elect Biden’s efforts during his previous terms in the White House. So, what is the CRI iAtlas, and how is it helping to advance immunotherapy?

Annie Yu, Ph.D.:

The CRI iAtlas is a comprehensive web-based tool that allows oncologists and researchers to study and analyze interactions between tumors and the immune microenvironment. Originally it was built to analyze information—in a standardized and harmonized way—from the Cancer Genome Atlas, a repository of data from 10,000 tumor samples across 33 cancer types. Then, by breaking down these samples according to various immune subtypes identified, people can see which genes are up regulated or down regulated in various cancers as well as how that correlates with immune subtype and survival.

This enables researchers to more easily determine whether or not a gene is actually playing a role in the activity or responses of certain cancer types. And it's been particularly helpful in creating a database devoted to translational science that could potentially help researchers figure out different strategies for overcoming various forms of cancer. It’s also free for anyone to access and allows users to test each module on their own data, so that it can serve as a comprehensive and ever-evolving reference repository for those working in the field.

Overall, we hope it will help drive more hypothesis-driven research. By integrating it with our Immuno-Oncology Landscape, researchers can gain insight into the fundamental biology of various cancers, as well as any links between that biology and treatments that are currently in the clinic or in development.

Arthur N. Brodsky, Ph.D.:

Can you talk about what you mean when you say that the CRI iAtlas has been integrated with the CRI Immuno-Oncology Landscape analyses, and how that might benefit the field?

Annie Yu, Ph.D.:

To illustrate that I would use a scenario where a researcher might be interested in targeting a certain immune-related activity or pathway. First, they could use the CRI iAtlas to look at whether or not it is important in different types of cancers. Then, they could use our landscape to see how many existing agents there are that target that activity or pathway, how far along they are in development, and whether they’re already evaluated in clinical trials.

Arthur N. Brodsky, Ph.D.:

Has anything like this existed before?

Annie Yu, Ph.D.:

No, not publicly at least, as far as we know. To our knowledge, these are the first platforms of their kind that can be freely accessed without having to pay a premium. This is also important for research purposes, as researchers are only able to cite information that is public, which would exclude private analysts’ reports.

Arthur N. Brodsky, Ph.D.:

That’s great to hear!

When COVID-19 hit earlier this year, your CRI Clinical Accelerator team also took a look at how the pandemic impacted cancer clinical trials. What did you find there?

Annie Yu, Ph.D.:

Yes, we were very uniquely positioned to think about this, and found from interviewing CRI’s network of key opinion leaders that clinical trials were slowing in recruitment. There were over a thousand trials in general suspended due to COVID-19 and over 200 of those were specific to cancer.

And as we've continued to observe the situation, thankfully, cancer clinical trials have resumed much faster than other trials have. For the most part oncology clinical trials have rapidly tried to get back up and going.

Arthur N. Brodsky, Ph.D.:

Is your team planning to continue monitoring COVID-19’s impact on cancer clinical trials and produce another report eventually?

Annie Yu, Ph.D.:

We constantly monitor it. We update our dashboards monthly. And now we're thinking about doing another comprehensive review at the one-year mark.

Arthur N. Brodsky, Ph.D.:

Finally, where do you see the Clinical Accelerator going in the future? What is your vision for it moving forward?

Annie Yu, Ph.D.:

Our primary goal is to continue funding more trials in areas of significant unmet need, and think trials that utilize platform settings are really interesting because they enable us to simultaneously test multiple novel combinations, and really hone in on addressing the most important hypotheses that remain unanswered in the field.

A lot of our trial designs and collaborative partnerships are unprecedented and helpful. We have a great model when it comes to enabling us to go about answering questions surrounding biomarkers that could help improve how immunotherapy is administered, to whom, and when. The amount of work that goes into these trials is amazing, and I think continuing these efforts will be really rewarding for the field at large as well as for the CRI Clinical Accelerator. Going forward, we're constantly trying to be more innovative with respect to each individual part of the Clinical Accelerator in order to support the Cancer Research Institute’s overall mission of ushering in a future immune to cancer.

Learn more about the CRI Clinical Accelerator

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