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Roswell Park CEO sees cancer research on cusp of big advances

Advances in immunotherapy offer great optimism that new, effective ways to treat and prevent cancer are close to becoming reality for patients, the head of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center said Thursday, in a review of work at the cancer center.

"The immune system has the power to treat cancer and maybe get rid of it before it starts," said Candace S. Johnson, the president and chief executive officer.

She served as keynote speaker at The Buffalo News' Prospectus Premiere event at Salvatore's Italian Gardens in Depew. The News' annual business forecast publication, Prospectus, will be published Jan. 28.

Prospectus 2018: What's next for the New Buffalo?

Johnson was named president and CEO of the cancer center in early 2015, after serving in that position on an interim basis for a few months. Prior to that, she was deputy director and chair of the department of pharmacology and therapeutics, the Wallace Family chair for translational research and professor of oncology.

Before arriving at Roswell Park in 2002, Johnson served as deputy director of basic research at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, and professor of pharmacology and medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Immunotherapy, unlike radiation or chemotherapy, harnesses the body's immune system to target tumors without harsh side effects. In cancer, the idea is to boost the body’s natural defenses against disease or train the immune system to attack certain cancer cells.

"In pregnancy, a fetus grows inside a woman and, in most instances, it is not recognized as foreign. It is not rejected. The immune system is actively turned off. We didn't understand for years why, and now we do," Johnson said. "What if we could turn it on to recognize a tumor?"

Roswell Park, like other cancer centers, has invested deeply in the emerging field.

"When you go to cancer conferences, it is all people want to talk about," she said.

Johnson cautioned that there is still much research to do, but offered a handful of examples of potentially helpful immunotherapy-related work ongoing at Roswell Park.

Most noteworthy, because of the international attention it has received, is the trial that began last year at the cancer center of CIMAvax-EGF, a lung cancer vaccine developed in Cuba. The study  marked a historic shift in government restrictions on trade with Cuba and brought to the United States a promising therapy for a disease that has resisted significant improvements in outcomes.

CIMAvax does not prevent cancer, but patients in initial studies lived a few months longer than those on standard therapies. Assuming the current larger trial here replicates the positive results, researchers hope additional studies improve on the outcomes by combining CIMAvax with other treatments, or by giving it earlier in the course of the disease or to prevent the recurrence of cancer.

"The mechanism of the vaccine is genius," Johnson said. "It's not without problems, but the promise is great."

Roswell Park in 2017 launched a spinoff company, Tactiva Therapeutics, to develop an immunotherapy based on work at the cancer center.

The approach in this case is known as adoptive cell therapy, in which a patient's immune cells are drawn from blood, genetically engineered, multiplied and injected back into the patient to provoke an attack against the cancer. Tactiva uses processes that have not been employed before and in a way that may prove beneficial with such hard-to-treat cancers as those in the lung, ovaries, pancreas and prostate gland.

Johnson highlighted one other immunotherapy under study at Roswell Park – SurVaxM, a treatment for a type of brain cancer known as glioblastoma. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year awarded orphan drug status to the vaccine developed at the cancer center, a designation meant to assist approaches to treat rare diseases that affect relatively few people.

The vaccine is designed to control tumor growth and recurrence.

"The future for cancer is very bright," Johnson said. "And Roswell Park is going to be a part of that future."

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