A Cancer Innovation Engine: 10 Roswell Park Research Advances to Look for in 2021

Interpreting clues our immune cells hold in order to address unequal outcomes for Black and white women with breast cancer is the goal at the heart of one of many high-priority projects underway at Roswell Park.

Teams across cancer center are leading efforts to tackle the most urgent priorities in oncology

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The past year has been a challenging one for so many of us. While the new coronavirus absorbed our attention, cancer has continued to take the lives of many around us. Early evidence suggests that the rates of death from cancer are likely to reverse their recent trend and start rising again as an indirect effect of COVID-19. At this pivotal moment, researchers from the labs and clinical centers at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center continue to tackle the most urgent priorities in oncology so that more people can survive another deadly disease.

Dr. Candace Johnson

“The challenges of the pandemic had to be met with an all-hands-on-deck response, absolutely,” says Roswell Park President and CEO Candace S. Johnson, PhD, who also serves as M&T Bank Presidential Chair in Leadership. “But it was also critically important for us to keep our cancer research on track, and our team managed to do that despite enormous obstacles, with remarkable progress.

“There’s such an energy among cancer researchers working today,” Dr. Johnson adds. “With the genomic revolution, big data and the era of precision medicine underway, we’ve never had more doors to open — or more tools at our disposal. And we have at Roswell Park some of the most impressive teams doing incredible, field-leading work across the spectrum of cancer research.”

Here are some of the highlights you can expect from the passionate, driven Roswell Park team in the year ahead.

1. MAKING IMMUNOTHERAPY WORK FOR MORE PEOPLE

Roswell Park teams have uncovered new opportunities to turn “cold” tumors “hot” and expand the benefits of cancer immunotherapy to more people. In 2021, look for new clinical trials applying these groundbreaking strategies for taking better advantage of our bodies’ own cancer-fighting abilities.

Dr. Igor Puzanov

“The immune system is a powerful tool, and only in the last decade have we really begun to tap into its potential as a cancer-fighting powerhouse,” says Igor Puzanov, MD, MSCI, Senior Vice President for Clinical Investigation, Director of the Center for Early Phase Clinical Trials and Chief of Melanoma at Roswell Park. “We have it in our sights to expand the benefits of immune-based approaches to cancer types that typically do not respond in a lasting way to immunotherapy — including breast, prostate, colorectal, ovarian, melanoma, kidney and pancreatic tumors.”

Read more about the work that Drs. KalinskiItoMuhitchKnudsen and Witkiewicz will be building on.

2. WORKING TO REVERSE DEADLY INEQUITIES

The same Roswell Park epidemiologists who did pioneering work to uncover the protective benefits of breast-feeding in reducing breast cancer risk among women of African extraction are now teaming up with colleagues in immunology and biostatistics to zero in on ways to erase the inequity in outcomes among Black women and white women who face breast cancer.

The researchers previously discovered that certain immune cells in the tumors of Black women often had lost their functional ability to kill tumor cells. Based on those earlier findings, the group will now test whether they see the same patterns in a larger statewide study.

Dr. Christine Ambrosone

“This is a new area of research that may uncover significant implications for how different patients respond to cancer therapy, and may even open up opportunities for prevention,” notes Christine Ambrosone, PhD, Chair of Cancer Prevention & Control and Senior Vice President of Population Sciences.

Read more about the work that Drs. Ambrosone, Yao and Abrams will be building on.

3. REVEALING THE TRUE BENEFITS AND RISKS OF E-CIGS, HEATED TOBACCO

Electronic smokeless tobacco products — including various e-cigarettes, e-liquids and heated tobacco devices like IQOS — are one of the fastest-growing methods of nicotine delivery. Yet users have had little evidence to guide their decision-making about whether to use these still-new products and which devices and e-liquids may pose fewer risks.

Roswell Park scientists with expertise in health behavior and immunology are leading the field with their explorations into these products and the relative risks they pose.

Read more about the work that Drs. HylandO’Connor and Goniewicz, and Thanavala will be building on.

4. UNDERSTANDING THE IMPACT OF STRESS ON CANCER

It’s no surprise that cancer patients experience high levels of stress, but it’s Roswell Park teams that are leading the way in characterizing how chronic stress impacts us — and how we can intervene so it doesn’t impinge on the effectiveness of cancer treatment.

Dr. Elizabeth Repasky

These efforts range from clinical studies in patients with melanoma and breast cancer to studies with implications for combining immunotherapy and chemoradiation and ways to improve outcomes for patients undergoing stem cell transplant — and they all stem from the work of Elizabeth Repasky, PhD, Interim Chair and the Dr. William Huebsch Professor in Immunology at Roswell Park, documenting the role of adrenergic stress in the immune response to cancer.

Read more about the work that Drs. GandhiSinghRepaskyMohammadpour and McCarthy will be building on.

5. DEVELOPING TREATMENTS FOR RARE CANCERS

Cancers that don’t affect as many people don’t get the attention that more common cancers do. But our teams are bringing new treatments to people with less-common cancers who in many cases are out of options.

The clinician/immunologist team that generated the promising SurVaxM treatment vaccine for brain cancer out of their labs at Roswell Park expects to move that work forward this year with a pivotal multicenter, randomized trial of this investigational therapy in patients with newly diagnosed glioblastoma. The same vaccine is also being studied as a possible therapeutic for rare neuroendocrine tumors, or NETs, and for multiple myeloma.

At the same time, basic and translational researchers from several Roswell Park teams are exploring next-generation approaches for exposing and exploiting the processes that drive pancreatic cancers to be such a deadly and hard-to-treat malignancy.

Read more about the work that Drs. Fenstermaker and CiesielskiIyerWitkiewicz and KnudsenLi and Feigin will be building on.

6. REMOVING UNNEEDED OPIOIDS FROM OUR COMMUNITIES

Many patients are routinely sent home from the hospital with prescriptions for opioids after undergoing surgery. But in which cases is that really necessary, and can some easily implemented changes to clinical workflows and processes not only improve patient outcomes but significantly reduce the volume of opioids that end up circulating on our streets and subjecting patients to the threat of criminal activity?

Dr. Emese Zsiros

In 2018, Emese Zsiros, MD, PhD, FACOG, Assistant Professor of Oncology with Roswell Park’s Department of Gynecologic Oncology and Center for Immunotherapy, published groundbreaking work showing that the number of opioids prescribed to surgical patients can be dramatically reduced, without detrimental effect. This year, she will expand on those earlier findings with an even broader exploration into safer, more effective pain-management protocols. 

Read more about the work that Dr. Zsiros will be building on.

7. MITIGATING METASTASIS: UNDERSTANDING WHAT MAKES CANCER SPREAD

The majority of cancer deaths are caused by cancer metastasis, the spread of cancer cells from one organ or site to another. Taking on some of the biggest cancer killers, including prostate cancer and breast cancer, our teams are delving into the mechanisms that drive this spread — and ways to derail those processes so the cancers can’t spread.

Read more about the work that Drs. DasgputaKnudsen, Witkiewicz and O’ConnorTang and Liu and Smiraglia will be building on.

8. NEW OPTIONS FOR PATIENTS WITH LUNG CANCER

Lung cancer remains the biggest cancer killer, and Roswell Park is helping to reverse that trend through collaboration with other major centers and international innovators.

Dr. Grace Dy

Grace Dy, MD, Chief of Thoracic Oncology, led Roswell Park’s contributions to seminal studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine this year about two new precision-medicine treatment options for patients whose lung cancers display particular molecular characteristics that can be identified through next-generation sequencing. She is also leading the only U.S. clinical trials of CIMAvax-EGF, a unique immunotherapy for lung cancer that was developed by scientists in Cuba.

Read more about the work that Dr. Dy and colleagues will be building on with selpercatinibsotorasib and CIMAvax-EGF.

9. FINDING NEW USES FOR EXISTING DRUGS

Some of the biggest advances in medical care come when teams take a new look at an old drug — an approach that can help to speed new and well-tolerated options to patients in need. Roswell Park teams are putting everything from beta-blockers to the oldest hormonal or endocrine therapy, tamoxifen, to work against even more cancers.

Read more about the work that Drs. Das and TakabeZsirosGandhi and Repasky will be building on.

10. PUTTING A PRIORITY ON QUALITY OF LIFE

Roswell Park’s clinical teams recognize the importance of their patients’ quality of life as they evaluate every treatment decision. Our clinician-researchers are helping to put that focus in the forefront with new approaches to treatment  and pain control — led by efforts relating to ovarian, lung and head/neck cancers.  

Read more about the work that Drs. Zsiros and Singh will be building on.