Johns Hopkins Researchers Receive Swim Across America Grants to Fight Colon Cancer, Study Immune System Role in Lung Cancer


Two Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center researchers received grants from Swim Across America to fund work for more effective ways to fight colorectal cancer and find out what role the immune system plays in non-small cell lung cancer.

The two-year grants, each for $150,000, are a result of Swim Across America’s charity swims, which raise money for clinical trials and cancer research. Since 1987, the organization has raised more than $80 million in support of cancer research facilities across the country.

Franck Housseau, Ph.D., associate professor of oncology at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center and the Bloomberg~Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, is focusing on whether adding a third checkpoint inhibitor drug (IL-17) to a combination of two others might prove to be effective in activating a patient’s immune system to fight colorectal cancer.

A subset of colon tumors have markers that suggest they are evading the immune system by locally suppressing it, triggering intense interest in using a new class of immunotherapeutic drug known as checkpoint inhibitors to fight it. However, these drugs haven’t been effective on their own.

To boost their efficacy, researchers have tested adding in a second drug known as an IDO1 inhibitor, which might inactivate the cancer cells’ immunosuppressive activity. Though promising in early clinical trials, this approach recently failed in a larger phase III trial.

His work adding a third checkpoint inhibitor drug to the mix will examine the immune and metabolic activity in samples of human colorectal cancer and test IL-17 inhibition in an animal model. This work could eventually lead to a new approach to effectively treat some types of colorectal cancer.

Kellie Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of oncology at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center and the Bloomberg~Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, and her team developed a lab test, called MANAFEST, that identifies which cancer-specific proteins can be recognized by immune cells called T cells. However, this approach doesn’t show which genes are active in these cells, which could offer further insight on their activity.

Her new study will integrate these two methods, linking tumor-specific proteins with the genetic activity of the T cells that respond to them. Using this combined approach, she and her colleagues will test the blood of patients with non-small cell lung cancer whose tumors were surgically removed to better understand how their T cells fight tumors. They’ll also develop full gene expression profiles of the T cells that respond to cancer-specific proteins to better understand the genetic program that activates the immune response.

The abundance of data that this approach provides could eventually help researchers develop better ways to harness and boost the cancer-fighting capabilities of the immune system.

The Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center has received over $3.2 million in funding since the inception of SAA Baltimore in 2010, including the establishment of the Swim Across America Laboratory, housed in the Bunting Blaustein Cancer Research Building.

The work of the SAA Lab and researchers is dedicated to understanding human cancers and formulating effective patient care. Accomplishments have included researching brain and pancreatic cancer, developing the PapGene test for early detection of endometrial and ovarian cancers, finding evidence that circulating tumor DNA could be used as a biomarker and cancer screening tool, and identifying a companion test for a checkpoint inhibitor drug (PD-1).