$10 million gift accelerates cancer therapies research, extends benefits to more patients

May 19, 2020

Researchers at the University of Chicago Medicine will come together to develop personalized therapies for hard-to-treat cancers, thanks to a $10 million gift from the Jonas family. The gift establishes the David and Etta Jonas Center for Cellular Therapy at UChicago Medicine, named for David Jonas and his late wife, Etta. 

The center unites a team of experts dedicated to improving cellular therapy, especially T-cell treatments like CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) T-cell therapy, an emerging form of cancer treatment. CAR T-cell therapy works by supercharging patients’ white blood cells to seek out and destroy cancer cells. Although this therapy has, in some cases, led to complete remission, it is not always successful and is currently limited to treating certain blood cancers. 

Through the David and Etta Jonas Center for Cellular Therapy, researchers at UChicago Medicine will work to overcome these challenges and realize the full potential of cellular therapy. This includes efforts to improve the therapy’s overall effectiveness and extend its benefits to a much broader group of patients, including those with cancers that are currently difficult to treat. 

“I was impressed by UChicago Medicine’s multidisciplinary research program and commitment to attaining tangible outcomes that will really serve cancer patients,” Jonas said. “They have all the key elements for a successful research program: experience in clinical trials, access to the most leading-edge technology, a tremendous track record in attracting scientific talent, and a strong team to lead the program.” 

T-cells patrol our bodies, searching for signs of infection and disease. When T-cells detect an abnormal protein on the surface of a cell, called an antigen, they latch onto it with a matching receptor. Like puzzle pieces, the antigen and T-cell receptor bind together, triggering an immune response that destroys the cell. 

Some cancers, however, develop ways to trick the immune system, such as by disguising themselves as healthy cells or by shutting down the immune response altogether. CAR-T cell therapy helps to resolve this by modifying patients’ T-cells in the lab, so they can better recognize and target cancer-specific antigens. 

However, there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach to targeting antigens since they are unique to each patient and his or her tumor; nor is there a reliable method for predicting which antigens a given tumor will express. To address these challenges, Hans Schreiber, MD, PhD, professor of pathology at the University of Chicago, has developed a new method for personalized T-cell therapy. By characterizing a patient’s T-cell receptors, he is able to engineer a customized therapy that accurately targets the tumor’s unique antigens. 

This highly personalized approach to T-cell therapy can safely target cancer cells, without damaging healthy tissue. It also has the potential to treat other cancer types—beyond blood cancers—including hard-to-treat solid tumors, like pancreatic and ovarian cancers. With new investments in infrastructure and expertise, the Jonas Center will accelerate this research effort and develop this therapy for clinical trials for patients with metastatic solid tumors, through a collaboration with Michael Bishop, MD, professor of medicine and director of the Cellular Therapy Program, and Amittha Wickrema, PhD, professor of medicine. 

“This gift will allow us to translate these groundbreaking discoveries made in the laboratory into novel cancer therapies, which have the potential to treat not just blood cancers, but also solid tumors,” said Kenneth Polonsky, MD, dean and executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Chicago. “If we can accomplish even part of that, it will be a major transformation in cancer therapy that will change the lives of many patients here in the United States and around the world.” 

While some patients have an excellent response to CAR T-cell therapy, others do not respond or relapse shortly after undergoing treatment. 

Bishop is leading an effort to identify factors that contribute to the therapy’s success, which is showing response rates greater than 90% for patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Bishop suspects that the “fitness” of patients’ T cells may determine if, and how well, they respond to therapy. Like a soccer team, it is important that patients’ T cells are not only fit enough to successfully take on their opponent (the cancer), but they must also be able to sustain their energy long enough to defeat their opponent and win the game. 

By identifying the qualities that make T cells “fit,” Bishop and his colleagues seek to predict how a patient will respond to the therapy in advance. This way, a patient’s T cells could be sequenced prior to undergoing treatment—allowing physicians to gauge if their immune system will be able to wage a successful attack against the cancer. In cases where the patient’s T cells are deemed unfit, the researchers aim to develop interventions to improve their fitness. 

“This is the most exciting time in my entire career,” Bishop said. “We finally have hope for patients who previously didn’t have hope. And now we are working to improve upon these results. Within the next 10 years, I think these treatments are going to become more effective, less toxic, and most importantly, will give new options to a broader scope of patients.” 

University of Chicago has the release