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2020 Update
Jodi Skiles, MD, and Sherif Farag, MD, PhD, pose for a portrait.

Cancer Update

Indiana University School of Medicine is helping revolutionize how cancer is treated. More than 250 cancer researchers at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center conduct research focused on a wide variety of cancers. Some of these scientists work in IU laboratories seeking to understand cancer at a cellular level; others are designing and directing clinical trials aimed at improving treatment outcomes. Their groundbreaking work is powered by your generous support. Here’s a look at how, together, we’re improving the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Immunotherapy

Cancer researchers have known immune cells can recognize and attack cancer since the late 1970s. The enduring question, though, was whether those cells could be trained to attack cancer without causing harm to the patient.

Now, immunotherapy is a reality.

The process involves removing a type of immune cells, T cells, from a patient’s body and modifying them so they will zero in on certain markers for cancer. Billions of these re-engineered cells are multiplied in the lab and then infused back into the patient’s body. Remarkably, these engineered cells can survive for an extended period, floating through the bloodstream and fighting off cancer. Think of them as a living drug.

IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers Sherif Farag, MD, PhD, and Jodi Skiles, MD, are leading the partnership with IU Health to bring this groundbreaking, research-based treatment—known as CAR T-cell therapy—to children and adults with certain blood cancers.

The Stem Cell Transplant and Cellular Therapy Program at Riley Hospital for Children is the only program in Indiana offering this treatment. IU has also joined CureWorks, a group of elite pediatric centers collaborating on novel cell and immune therapies.

IU physician-scientists are also running several clinical trials that explore whether immunotherapy can thwart multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer in plasma cells.

Precision Genomics

 Typically, physicians have described cancer by location—such as breast, lung, or liver—and used a standard regimen for that type of cancer to treat patients. Today, oncologists are making treatment decisions in a fundamentally different way.

The tool that makes this possible is precision genomics.

At the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center, we can analyze a sample of a patient’s tumor and create a nuanced DNA profile. By looking at what’s gone awry at the cellular level, we can see exactly which mutations are driving each individual person’s cancer. This allows us to shift from a one-size-fits-all therapy to a precision therapy – one that is precisely for that patient.

After we collect these insights, a multidisciplinary team crafts treatment plans designed to attack the cancer and spare patients from harsh side effects.

Together with our partners at IU Health, our precision genomics program serves clinics in Lafayette, Muncie, Bloomington, and Indianapolis, allowing patients across Indiana to access this cutting-edge technology and research.

These efforts are epitomized by new precision treatments being developed for an aggressive form of breast cancer called triple-negative breast cancer. Launched by Bryan P. Schneider, MD, the Vera Bradley Professor of Oncology, the “Monogrammed Medicine” clinical trial illuminates the genetic blueprints of a woman’s cancer and screens drug candidates that could be effective.

Milan Radovich, PhD, associate professor of surgery, also uses precision medicine to predict how this aggressive form of breast cancer will evade treatment.

His research led to the development of a novel combination therapy, with one drug aimed at the original target in the tumor and another drug aimed at blocking the escape pathway that the tumor was taking. This new treatment option is currently being offered to patients in a clinical trial.

Similar research into developing personalized treatments for patients is under way in early-stage diseases such as lung cancer.

Leader in the Field 

 Implementing precision genomics and immunotherapy underscores why the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center is leading the way in cancer research—and not just in Indiana.

In August 2019, the National Cancer Institute bestowed its highest designation—comprehensive cancer center status—on the cancer center. It is one of only 51 such centers nationally, and the only one in Indiana to earn the honor.

The designation came after an extensive peer review of the cancer center, our shared research facilities, research programs, and leadership. Our collaborative approach to coordinating clinical trials through the Hoosier Cancer Research Network and Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium stood out to the reviewers, as did our partnerships that have created models for global oncology.

IU is known worldwide for its development of the cure for testicular cancer, the first umbilical stem cell transplant, and the world's only collection of healthy breast tissue samples. The new NCI designation demonstrates that our researchers continue to build on this legacy through work that advances the treatment and prevention of all cancers.

The NCI designation came with a five-year, $13.8 million grant to support research programs and facilities at the center. Much of the progress that led to this prestigious designation was supported by gifts from people like you.

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