New Immunotherapy Center Raises Hopes for Mesothelioma

Treatment & Doctors
Reading Time: 4 mins
Publication Date: 04/12/2016
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Johns Hopkins leaders expect the recently launched Bloomberg–Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in Baltimore will advance treatment for malignant mesothelioma.

The future of mesothelioma treatment will arrive quicker now.

The institute likely will become America’s research and development centerpiece for immunotherapy, which many cancer experts believe is the future of all cancer treatment.

“The potential to control and cure, even the most advanced, treatment-resistant cancers, has been elusive until now,” said Dr. Drew Pardoll, inaugural director of the institute and leading immunotherapy researcher at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “We believe the focused and collaborative research will advance immunotherapies to the point where the immune system will be able to beat 100 percent of cancers.”

Patients and doctors at Johns Hopkins discuss the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.

Immunotherapy involves strengthening a patient’s own immune system, then using it to detect and destroy cancer cells without harming healthy ones, much like it fights off viruses and other health threats. It uses drugs that can unmask the cancer — called checkpoint inhibitors — and allows the immune system to recognize it as foreign and attack it.

The treatment could be critical to fighting mesothelioma, an incurable cancer with few treatment options and no FDA-approved second-line therapy. It is a rare and aggressive disease caused by exposure to toxic asbestos fibers.

“Immunotherapy is a game changer,” Pardoll said. “We need more research to take us the rest of the distance, but we don’t think there is a single cancer that the patient’s own immune system ultimately can’t beat.”

Private Donations Are Funding Cancer Institute

More than $125 million in private donations, including two $50 million gifts from billionaire philanthropists Michael Bloomberg and Sidney Kimmel, funded the Bloomberg–Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.

Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, and Kimmel, founder of Jones Apparel Group, are long-time supporters of Johns Hopkins Medicine, which already includes the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The well-hyped announcement last month was met with considerable fanfare. The ceremony included Vice President Joe Biden, who recently has taken the governmental lead in pushing for accelerated cancer research, as well as Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin, along with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

“This institute is going to perfect new therapies and bring hope to millions of people,” Biden said at the ceremony in Baltimore. “I’m convinced, not only will we save millions of lives, we will reinstill in the American public, the notion that anything is possible.”

To underscore the significance of the $125 million donation that kick-started the immunotherapy institute, the American Cancer Society spends $150 million annually on all cancer research.

Research Will Include Many Types of Cancer

Researchers at the immunotherapy institute will focus initially on lung cancer, as well as other common types of cancers, including:

  • Ovarian
  • Urologic
  • Skin
  • Colon
  • Pancreatic
  • Breast

Much of the research will translate to other cancers, too.

Former President Jimmy Carter in December 2015 credited his comeback from melanoma cancer to immunotherapy drug Keytruda, which is now part of a mesothelioma clinical trial showing positive early results.

Dr. Julie Brahmer of Johns Hopkins recently published a study about the effectiveness of the immunotherapy drug Opdivo for lung cancer patients. She also works closely with mesothelioma patients at Johns Hopkins.

The Baylor College of Medicine in March opened the first clinical trial combining immunotherapy drugs durvalumab and tremelimumab with aggressive surgery for mesothelioma patients.

Another multicenter clinical trial combining immunotherapy with gene therapy soon will begin testing its effectiveness as a second-line treatment option.

“I believe immunotherapy will become the fourth pillar of treatment for mesothelioma [joining surgery, radiation and chemotherapy],” Dr. Dan Sterman, director of pulmonary medicine at New York University, recently told “It could help turn mesothelioma into a chronic disease that people can live with for a long time.”

Johns Hopkins’ new institute will give immunotherapy research a much-needed boost through increased funding for clinical trials, along with enhancing partnerships with biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

“This is going to provide funds to really push the envelope,” Pardoll said.

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