Researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine have received a $5.8 million state grant to develop an immunotherapy against hard-to-kill cancer stem cells.
The team that won the 30-month grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine hopes to develop a treatment that uses patients’ own cells to target cancer stem cells. The effort has implications for ovarian cancer, among others.
Dr. Ezra Cohen, associate director of translational science at the university’s Moores Cancer Center, will spearhead the project. The team will collaborate with Dr. Thomas Kipps, a UC San Diego professor who is conducting a Phase 1 clinical trial of cirmtuzumab (NCT02222688) in patients with relapsed or refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Cohen’s goal is to develop a treatment over the 30 months, “with input and support from the FDA,” that “can be tested in clinical trials,” he said in a press release.
Because cancer stem cells behave differently than other cancer cells, they often fail to respond to standard therapies.
Cohen’s team will target hard-to-treat or often deadly cancers, including head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, triple-negative breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, ovarian cancer, and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
The researchers have discovered a protein that sits on the outside of cancer cells. Known as a receptor tyrosine kinase-like orphan receptor — or ROR1, for short — it is capable of relaying messages into the cell. The team has found it in both solid and blood cancers.
Cohen’s group will pursue an emerging type of immunotherapy known as CAR T-cell therapy. This involves collecting a patient’s own T-cells, then engineering them in a laboratory to recognize cancer cells that have ROR1 protein.
Once the engineered cells are returned to the patient, they should seek out and destroy the cancer stem cells, the researchers said. An advantage of using CAR T-cells is that they remain in the body a long time, preventing disease recurrence.
Philanthropists Ralph and Fernanda Whitworth and the Immunotherapy Foundation funded the initial UC San Diego laboratory studies showing that engineered ROR1 CAR T-cells could kill cancer cells. Ralph Whitworth, who died of cancer in 2016, was a well-known investor who pumped money into activist causes.
The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has awarded UC San Diego more than $177 million since it was founded in 2004. California voters created the institute to accelerate stem cell research and treatments.