Research & Clinical Trials

Mesothelioma Research Grants Focus on Immunotherapy

Written By:
July 12, 2021
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Written By: Tim Povtak,
July 12, 2021

It comes as no surprise that immunotherapy is the common theme of the latest batch of the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation’s $100,000 grants.

Immunotherapy has become the future of cancer care advancements.

The foundation, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., has provided more than $10.8 million in funding for mesothelioma research in six countries since 1999. This funding has in turn stimulated additional funding opportunities. Donations from the previous year determine the size of the annual grants.

From the 49 applicants in the 2020 research grant cycle, the foundation’s science advisory board selected three to each receive a $100,000 grant. Dr. Tobias Peikert, pulmonologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, chaired the board.

Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation Grants
Recipient Topic
Dr. Konstantinos Votanopoulos, director of the Wake Forest School of Medicine Organoid Research Center Peritoneal Mesothelioma Organoids for Generation of Adaptive Immunity
Qun Jiang, Ph.D., staff scientist at the National Cancer Institute Mesothelin-targeted CAR-NK cell therapy for malignant mesothelioma
Jonathan Chee, Ph.D., research associate at the University of Western Australia Immune checkpoint induced tumor and autoimmunity: Can we separate them?

 “The uncertainty of the COVID era continues, but through it, we remain focused on the needs of our community and our mission,” Mary Hesdorffer, executive director of the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, noted in the official announcement. “My deepest gratitude goes out to our donors whose support is essential to our mission.”

Broadening Immunotherapy’s Effectiveness

All three awarded projects seek to make immunotherapy more effective in treating mesothelioma, a rare, aggressive asbestos-related cancer without a cure.

Immunotherapy involves using the power of a patient’s own immune system to combat the disease, often enhancing the immune response with various drugs.

It’s shown potential in battling mesothelioma, but, as with many types of treatment, its effectiveness has not been consistent for all patients. For some, one immunotherapy medication or drug combination may be more effective than another.

The immunotherapy journey has been challenging for some patients, with trial and error as well as some disappointments.

These grant recipients are trying to achieve improved and consistent efficacy for more patients.

Sustainability Is Key

The study at Wake Forest will focus on creating a reproducible mechanism that can sustain the immune system’s adaptability to a changing tumor environment.

Genetically engineered T cells used today often work well initially, but fail to respond to multiplying, next-generation cancer cells. This results in limited, short-term effectiveness with mesothelioma.

The Wake Forest researchers hope to overcome the longevity issue with their latest study. They plan to use personalized antigens to follow the clonal evolution of mesothelioma.

“We will deploy tumor organoids enriched with patient-specific antigen presenting cells, to prime and educate peripheral blood T cells to recognize and kill the patient’s own mesothelioma cells,” Votanopoulos wrote in his application.

NCI Study to Use Healthy Donors

Jiang will lead a study at the National Cancer Institute exploring the use of natural killer immune cells from healthy donors. Instead of using a patient’s own genetically engineered T cells, researchers hope donor cells will recognize tumor-specific molecules and eliminate mesothelioma.

It will build on the current chimeric antigen receptor therapy targeting mesothelin, a cell-surface protein found in many solid tumors, including mesothelioma, but rarely seen in healthy tissues.

Although CAR T-cell therapy has shown some efficacy, serious side effects have hindered its use.

Eliminating Serious Side Effects

Chee’s study is aimed at preventing the severe side effects that often accompany the immune system’s attack on tumor cells. He wants to compare the immune cells when found in the tumors with those in nearby organs.

“We do not understand how immune cells behave in tumors and organs after immunotherapy, if they attack tumors and organs in the same manner,” he wrote in his application. “Therefore, there are no strategies to prevent immune cells from causing side effects, while preserving the anti-tumor immune response.”

This study will start with comparisons in tumor-bearing animals treated with immunotherapy. Future drug targets will be based on the differences that are found.

The goal is to find drugs that can prevent side effects while preserving robust anti-tumor response.

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