New grant funding advances head and neck cancer research at Providence Cancer Institute

Five investigators at Providence Cancer Institute received new funding for immunotherapy research through an internal grant mechanism aimed to improve outcomes for patients with head and neck cancer.

The investigators comprise the first cohort of pilot project grants funded through the Developmental Research Program of the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute, a division of Providence Cancer Institute, in Portland, Oregon.

The program funds high-risk, high-impact projects and research collaborations among scientists and clinicians. Such multidisciplinary studies are essential to generating the preliminary data needed for additional funding from the National Institutes of Health.

In its inaugural funding cycle, the program awarded up to $100,000 each to projects spanning basic science research to the treatment and prevention of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). These include novel investigations of the tumor microenvironment and immune response, and innovative strategies for the development of clinical biomarkers, adoptive cellular therapy and a cancer vaccine.

“Characterization of tumor antigen-reactive CD4 Th cells and their role in the antitumor immune response in HNSCC”

This pilot study will provide essential information regarding the characteristics of helper T cells believed to be conductors of anticancer immune response. Dr. Duhen and colleagues will study the development of helper T cells, and how they interact with other immune cells in the tumor. They expect that by increasing  knowledge about the biology of helper T cells in head and neck cancer, and their relationship with other immune cells, their study will help design new treatment modalities that will benefit a larger number of patients.

“Development of a multi-antigen vaccine for head and neck squamous cell cancer prevention”

Approximately 12 percent of patients with oral dysplasia develop head and neck squamous cell carcinoma within four years. There remains no vaccine effective for patients with HNSCC who are not positive for human papillomavirus. Dr. Stanton's project aims to design a vaccine to durably prevent oral dysplasia recurrence or transformation to HNSCC.


“Generation of novel reagents to test clonal selection by different affinity T cells in HNSCC”

Immune therapy benefits only a small percentage of patients with recurrent or metastatic head and neck cancer. Dr. Young's study has the potential to shift the paradigm for immunotherapy by allowing for a non-invasive assessment of the tumor environment to guide treatment selection and predict response to therapy. They hope to provide a window to personalize therapy, to either escalate or de-escalate, based on individual tumor environmental factors.

“Immune regulatory gene silencing in tumor antigen-specific T cells for augmented efficacy in adoptive cell transfer for head and neck squamous cell carcinoma”

A fundamental problem with cancer is that tumors are able to inactivate and destroy the immune system cells that are trying to fight the cancer. This is accomplished through a variety of proteins that are produced within the tumor. Dr. Taylor and colleagues seek to develop a method to protect and enhance the ability of patients’ own immune systems to attack their cancers. They are developing a system in which they genetically manipulate patients’ cancer-fighting immune cells to make them resistant to the harmful tumor proteins that shield cancer from the immune system.

“Machine-learning-based identification and quantification of immune cell content from multiplex immunofluorescence histopathology images in the neoadjuvant immunoradiotherapy (NIRT) cohort”

The development of better clinical biomarker tests for predicting immunotherapy response is needed for patients with head and neck cancer. Dr. Piening and colleagues propose a novel approach to generate comprehensive imaging datasets using cutting-edge high-multiplex immunohistochemistry on tumor specimens from a neoadjuvant immuno-radiotherapy clinical trial at Providence Cancer Institute. They expect the approach will have significant downstream utility in other immunotherapy research studies and potentially as a clinical tool for aiding immunotherapy treatment decisions.

“We are delighted to fund these proposals that take advantage of new research opportunities to improve immunotherapy for head and neck cancer patients,” said R. Bryan Bell, M.D., D.D.S., FACS, RCSEd, physician executive, Providence Cancer Institute. “We hope to expand the program to include other tumor types and projects in the future, and use it as a tool to support new lines of research and collaboration.”

Program funding is made possible by the support of generous donors. To learn more about our comprehensive care for patients with head and neck cancer, visit Providence Head and Cancer Program.

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