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The ABCs of Immunotherapy — and What's in the Pipeline at Roswell Park

What is immunotherapy? In a nutshell, it’s a treatment designed to strengthen a patient’s own immune system so it can successfully fight disease.

Kunle Odunsi, MD, PhD, Deputy Director of Roswell Park and Executive Director of the Center for Immunotherapy, says immunotherapies have several advantages over standard treatments, including unlike chemotherapy or radiation, they target cancer cells only, not healthy cells.

Roswell Park offers several kinds of immunotherapy, including:

  • Adoptive T cell therapies
  • Therapeutic cancer vaccines
  • Checkpoint inhibitors

Adoptive T cell therapy

Adoptive T cell therapy begins when T lymphocytes, or T cells — the frontline soldiers of the immune system — are taken out of a patient’s blood sample. The T cells are then reengineered so that they produce T cell receptors, which help the T cells track down and destroy cancer cells. The super-charged T cells are then multiplied into an army of millions or billions and given back to the patient in the hope that they will help the immune system destroy the cancer.

Therapeutic Cancer Vaccines

Neoantigens are molecules produced by DNA mutations in cancer cells. They are present in cancer cells only, not in healthy cells. Neoantigens are collected from a patient’s tumor and used to manufacture a personalized vaccine designed to hunt down and destroy the cancer cells in that specific patient.

Some vaccines work by targeting specific proteins found in tumors. Unlike neoantigen vaccines, which are customized to each patient, the same “off the shelf” allogeneic vaccine can be given to different patients. Roswell Park offers allogeneic vaccines through clinical trials, as well as the FDA-approved vaccine Provenge® for eligible patients with late-stage prostate cancer.

Checkpoint Inhibitors

Cancer cells essentially “put the brakes on the immune system when it should be doing its job to kill those cells,” says Dr. Odunsi. Investigators at Roswell Park’s Center for Immunotherapy have identified several checkpoints, or molecules that put the brakes on the patient’s immune response, and are focusing on three of those — PD1, CTLA4, and IDO — to help improve the effectiveness of therapeutic cancer vaccines.

“We are one of the first to combine our vaccines with these immune modulators, or checkpoints,” explains Dr. Odunsi. “We have ongoing clinical trials where we not only vaccinate to generate immune cells, but also to limit the ability of checkpoints.”

Inquire about your eligibility for current and future cancer immunotherapy clinical trials at Roswell Park.

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