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2021 Update
Kelvin Lee IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center

Cancer Update

IN FEBRUARY, Kelvin Lee, MD, became director of the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center and promptly announced that his vision could be summed up simply: 10 and 10 in 10.

The first 10 refers to the highest score bestowed by the National Cancer Institute as it evaluates cancer centers. Attaining it would affirm the research and education unfolding at IU is exceptional.

The second 10 reflects our push to be ranked among the top 10 nationally in cancer subspecialties by U.S. News and World Report. This would affirm our patients receive care that is second to none.

And we aspire to do both in 10 years.

The plan is bold, but the IU School of Medicine and its leaders are also unabashed in their own goal—to cure two forms of cancer. More than 250 cancer researchers are already conducting groundbreaking research in their labs and translating it to clinical trials. It’s the kind of excellence and ambition that drew Lee here from Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York.

Over 15 years, he helped launch its immunotherapy research program, and he was intent on retiring there. But once he heard the vision of IU School of Medicine Dean Jay Hess, Lee knew the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center was a place where great things were possible. Here’s a look at how, together, we are changing the way cancer is prevented, diagnosed, treated and cured.

BREAST CANCER

Triple-negative breast cancer lacks the common traits oncologists use to diagnose cancer, but it is insidious for another reason: the disease can slough off traditional treatments.

Now, a team of IU researchers, led by Xiongbin Lu, PhD, the Vera Bradley Foundation Professor of Breast Cancer Innovation, has identified a potential treatment option.

Often, breast cancer doesn’t have a fragment of a chromosome that contains genes to help suppress tumors. Yet Lu’s group used its absence to their advantage, as the absence of that chromosome makes tumor cells vulnerable to a small-molecule inhibitor. When researchers paired it with an existing breast cancer drug, the combination killed cells in animal models.

The discovery opens up opportunities for the team to develop a precision immunotherapy regimen. Even better, the drug, called T-Ama, has been deemed safe and effective—teeing it up for clinical studies in patients.

“The drug will be able to be used alone or in combination with current immune checkpoint inhibitors,” Lu said. “I think it will be a gamechanger for the field of triple-negative breast cancer therapy.”

TESTIS CANCER

The IU School of Medicine is known for its pioneering work in testicular cancer research by Lawrence Einhorn, MD, the Livestrong Foundation Professor of Oncology, and his colleagues. Today, even though 95 percent of men diagnosed with the disease are cured, many live for decades with the lingering side effects of the regimen that saved their life.

Those treated with cisplatin-based therapies can experience hearing loss, pain and numbness in their limbs, and cardiovascular disease. For some, there’s a higher risk for other cancers. To Lois Travis, MD, SCD, the Lawrence H. Einhorn Professor of Cancer Research, a cure shouldn’t compromise quality of life.

An international expert on survivorship, Travis oversees The Platinum Study, a global consortium of researchers following more than 2,000 survivors worldwide. The group’s work linked hearing loss to the total cisplatin dose a patient receives. Some also have genetic variations that make them susceptible to tinnitus and neuropathy.

Last fall, the NCI renewed the group’s grant and provided an additional $5.7 million to continue its work. With this support, the group of a dozen preeminent scientists can continue monitoring and following health changes of patients, who have a median age of 37, as they grow older.

“If we want to improve our understanding of long-term cisplatin-related toxicities, this is an ideal population,” Travis said.

LUNG CANCER

Making cancer cells sensitive to treatment is crucial. Yet lung cancer activates molecular processes that repair strands of DNA broken by radiation and makes the cells resistant to treatment. In his lab, John Turchi, PhD, the Tom and Julie Wood Foundation Professor of Lung Cancer Research, has identified a target for a potential drug to throw off that repair process.

The promising work earned Turchi’s lab a $2.9 million grant from the National Cancer Institute and, if developed, would expand options for patients who don’t respond to existing drugs.

“Our molecule does something completely different,” Turchi said. “There are reasons to believe that our inhibitor allows a greater scope of possibilities for cancers than what is currently being tested in the clinic. Because of this different mechanism of action, it opens up a whole array of things that aren’t possible with the existing therapeutics.”

LEUKEMIA

For several decades, an infusion of stem cells has been a lifesaving treatment for leukemia patients. While safe, it’s not without risk. Almost a third of patients experience graft-versus-host-disease, a complication where their immune system attacks what it sees as an invading force.

The results are potentially fatal, but researchers at the IU School of Medicine found a promising solution: repurpose a drug used for Type 2 diabetes. The research effort led by Sherif Farag, MD, PHD, the Lawrence H. Einhorn Professor of Oncology, landed in the pages of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.

Of 36 patients in the clinical study, only 5 percent experienced GVHD after taking a dose of the drug sitagliptin within 100 days of their transplant. Co-author, Hal Broxmeyer, PhD, IU Distinguished Professor and Mary Margaret Walther Professor Emeritus, had previously found that the drug improves stem cells’ engraftment in patients who also had much lower GVHD rates.

Repurposing the drug is also helpful for another reason: it’s inexpensive and accessible. “These findings are very significant because there are a lot of other different drugs that are being tested,” Farag said, “including ones that are very expensive or require administration intravenously for a prolonged time well beyond the time of recovery and transplant.”

At the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center, the march toward 10 and 10 in 10 has begun.

Help IU School of Medicine bring us closer to a cure for cancer.

Contact Meghan McFadden Forestal at 317-278-2102.

Contact Meghan McFadden Forestal