Anti-Cancer Immune Response may be Boosted with Combination Therapy, UA Cancer Center Lab Helps Discover

The University of Arizona Cancer Center collaborated with researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina to uncover better ways to harness the immune system to fight cancer.

The University of Arizona Cancer Center performed experiments indicating that a triple-combination therapy might significantly boost the immune system’s ability to fight cancer and improve patient survival. In partnership with researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), the team published its results online in Clinical Cancer Research.

The group focused on a protein called PIM kinase, which under normal circumstances is integral for cell growth, but can go awry to cause cancer. Their experiments suggested that, when combined with two types of immunotherapy treatments, a drug that “blocks” PIM kinase could help extend immune memory, enabling a longer-lasting immune response.

“The focus on PIM came out of my laboratory,” said Andrew S. Kraft, MD, director of the UA Cancer Center. “PIM kinase is an important target in cancer. This collaborative work shows that inhibiting this enzyme can greatly enhance immunotherapy and impact cancer.”

T cells, the “foot soldiers” of the immune system, eliminate threats such as viruses and bacteria. Theoretically, they should be able to seek and destroy cancer, but often they need help recognizing tumors as “foreign.” In recent years, immunotherapy has been used to “train” patients’ T cells to recognize cancer and mount an aggressive immune response.

Adoptive T cell therapy (ACT) is a type of immunotherapy that involves infusing patients with T cells with strong anti-cancer properties. These “supercharged” T cells, however, can die out before cancer is cleared, leading to relapse. By combining ACT with a PIM inhibitor and another type of immunotherapy called a checkpoint inhibitor, the UA and MUSC teams were able to extend that immune response in lab experiments. Their experiments pitted this triple-combination therapy against melanoma, the sixth-most common cancer in Arizona, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services — but their results could have implications for other cancer types as well. The hope is that better drug combinations will expand treatment options for patients and extend their survival.

“PIM inhibitors have been developed by multiple pharmaceutical companies,” Dr. Kraft said. “They need to go into trials in a more diverse group of tumor types to make an impact on cancer treatment and patients’ lives.”

An accomplished cancer researcher and drug developer, Dr. Kraft left MUSC in 2014 to lead the UA Cancer Center. He is the Sydney E. Salmon endowed chair, associate vice president for oncology programs for the UA Health Sciences and professor of medicine and senior associate dean for translational research at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson.

EDITORS NOTE: To arrange an interview with Dr. Kraft, please contact Megan Guthrie at 520-626-2280 or mlg1@email.arizona.edu.

Last month, the Hollings Cancer Center announced that “Triple Combination Cancer Immunotherapy Improves Outcomes in Preclinical Melanoma Model” in this news release.

About the University of Arizona Cancer Center

The University of Arizona Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center with headquarters in Arizona. The UA Cancer Center is supported by NCI Cancer Center Support Grant No. CA023074. With primary locations at the University of Arizona in Tucson and at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, the UA Cancer Center has more than a dozen research and education offices throughout the state, with more than 300 physicians and scientists working together to prevent and cure cancer. For more information: uacc.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube)