Pancreas cancer is the third deadliest cancer in the United States with unfortunately only about 8.5 percent of patients surviving more than five years from diagnosis. However, a phase 1 clinical trial reported by Dr. Mark O’Hara, Assistant Professor of Hematology-Oncology at Penn, at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in provided encouraging news: 20 out of 24 patients showed tumor shrinkage in a combination of agonist CD40 mAb and PD-1 mAb. This clinical trial, overseen by Dr. Robert Vonderheide, M.D., D.Phil., Director of the Penn’s Abramson’s Cancer Center, is a result of collaboration among multiple academic, industrial and not-for-profit partners.
It all started with an idea Dr. Vonderheide had – turning so-called “cold tumors”, or tumors that respond poorly to treatments such as PD-1 inhibitor, into hot tumors, which respond much more readily to such treatments. The key to this transition could be a CD40 agonist, as Dr. Vonderheide had shown in pancreatic cancer animal models. The problem Dr. Vonderheide faced was how to effectively gather the funding and experts needed in clinical, research, regulatory and business, to bring this promising idea to patients.
The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy (PICI) network helped bring Dr. Vonderheide’s idea to reality. Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy consortium established in 2015 with donation from the philanthropist and entrepreneur Sean Parker. Led by Drs. Carl June (Center Director) and John Wherry (Center Co-Director), the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at the University of Pennsylvania (PICI@Penn) collaborates closely with PICI central and other Affiliated Research Institutes including Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, University of California, Los Angeles, University of California, San Francisco and Stanford University. As a PICI Member Researcher, Dr. Vonderheide and his team quickly gained support from PICI and PICI’s partners – the Cancer Research Institute, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, and Apexigen who provided funding and study drugs for this pancreas cancer trial. With this support the multi-center PRINCE trial opened within six months and quickly recruited patients. The PCI Alliances team played an integral role working with multiple stakeholders across Penn and external partners to facilitate the partnership agreements needed to move this trial and related studies forward. Building on the encouraging phase 1 result, the PRINCE trial has now completed patient enrollment for a larger phase 2 trial.
The PRINCE trial is an example of the of groundbreaking research happening at Penn and in the PICI network. The PCI Alliances team works closely with PICI@Penn Member Researchers and Project Members, business offices, Office of General Counsel, Communications and other stakeholders at Penn, as well as counterparts at PICI central and other PICI Affiliated Research Institutes, to facilitate the planning and implementing of groundbreaking research programs, managing intellectual properties, and chaperoning the commercialization paths. The PCI Alliance team makes sure the communication channels are clear and smooth among all partners, ensure ongoing research and clinical projects are properly managed, and ensure risks and benefits are well balanced, managed and documented.
Cancer is a battleground with many fronts. Expanding from this successful collaboration among our partners, the PRINCE trial team has evolved to a more expansive pancreatic cancer platform trial – named REVOLUTION. The objective of REVOLUTION is to research, evaluate, and test novel drug combinations with chemotherapy that may increase the success rate of treating otherwise non-treatable pancreas cancer. The PCI Alliances team will continue to support and to facilitate the collaborations among Penn, our researchers and outside partners, with the goal of helping to make all cancers a treatable disease.