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Precision Oncology: Gene Changes Predict Immunotherapy Response

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Cancer Immunotherapy

Caption: Adapted from scanning electron micrograph of cytotoxic T cells (red) attacking a cancer cell (white).
Credits: Rita Elena Serda, Baylor College of Medicine; Jill George, NIH

There’s been tremendous excitement in the cancer community recently about the life-saving potential of immunotherapy. In this treatment strategy, a patient’s own immune system is enlisted to control and, in some cases, even cure the cancer. But despite many dramatic stories of response, immunotherapy doesn’t work for everyone. A major challenge has been figuring out how to identify with greater precision which patients are most likely to benefit from this new approach, and how to use that information to develop strategies to expand immunotherapy’s potential.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about early progress on this front, highlighting a small study in which NIH-funded researchers were able to predict which people with colorectal and other types of cancer would benefit from an immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab (Keytruda®). The key seemed to be that tumors with defects affecting the “mismatch repair” pathway were more likely to benefit. Mismatch repair is involved in fixing small glitches that occur when DNA is copied during cell division. If a tumor is deficient in mismatch repair, it contains many more DNA mutations than other tumors—and, as it turns out, immunotherapy appears to be most effective against tumors with many mutations.

Now, I’m pleased to report more promising news from that clinical trial of pembrolizumab, which was expanded to include 86 adults with 12 different types of mismatch repair-deficient cancers that had been previously treated with at least one type of standard therapy [1]. After a year of biweekly infusions, more than half of the patients had their tumors shrink by at least 30 percent—and, even better, 18 had their tumors completely disappear!


Eradicating Ebola: In U.S. Biomedical Research, We Trust

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BSL-4 environment

Caption: Researcher inside a biosafety level 4 laboratory, which provides the necessary precautions for working with the Ebola virus.
Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

Updated August 28, 2014: Today, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced plans to begin initial human testing of an investigational vaccine to prevent Ebola virus disease. Testing of the vaccine, co-developed by NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and GlaxoSmithKline, will begin next week at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD.

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As the outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease continues to spread in West Africa, now affecting four countries in the region, I am reminded how fragile life is—and how important NIH’s role is in protecting it.

NIH research has helped us understand how Ebola initially infects people and how it spreads from person to person. Preventing this spread is currently our greatest defense in fighting it. Through research, we know that the Ebola virus is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids and is not transmitted through the air like the flu. We also know the symptoms of Ebola and the period during which they can appear. This knowledge has informed how we manage the disease. We know that the virus can be contained and eradicated with early identification, isolation, strict infection control, and meticulous medical care.