Announced yesterday, VHIO and the BBVA Foundation have partnered to launch a pioneering and comprehensive CAncer IMmunotherapy and Immunology (CAIMI) four-year programme with a budget totalling at 2.500.000 EUR.

Set to expand VHIO’s dedicated efforts aimed at evidencing the efficacy of novel immune agents as mono therapy or in combination, this project will investigate the natural mechanisms by which T lymphocytes – the white blood cells that mediate immune response – respond to cancer. These insights, driven by VHIO´s multidisciplinary and purely translational teams, will be used to better predict anti-tumour responses and develop more precise treatments tailored to the specificities of individual patients. In parallel, an immunomics platform using avant-garde genomics applications and technologies will enable the study of mechanisms of resistance to immune-based therapies.

The CAIMI programme will combine the expertise of VHIO´s Early Clinical Drug Development Group, headed by Elena Garralda, and Tumour Immunology & Immunotherapy Group, directed by Alena Gros. “Our purely multidisciplinary teams comprised of clinical investigators and translational scientists with grounded expertise within these well-established fields at VHIO, will lead CAIMI towards advancing immunotherapeutics against cancer and in so doing, improve outcomes for patients”, says Josep Tabernero, VHIO´s Director and Head of the Medical Oncology Department, the Vall d´Hebron University of Hospital (HUVH).

VHIO and the BBVA Foundation first partnered in 2013 to implement a Tumour Biomarkers Research Programme. Under the expert leadership of Josep Tabernero, and José Baselga, Physician-in-Chief at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), New York, the project successfully concluded in June 2017 and firmly established VHIO as a reference in precision medicine by consolidating its research in developing molecular therapies, and expanding its leading prescreening and technology platforms.

These efforts have led VHIO to mark several important milestones in progressing precision medicine in oncology through the molecular profiling of individual patients. Building on these successes, VHIO and the BBVA Foundation have paired once again to pioneer a comprehensive programme in cancer Immunotherapy and immunology Programme – CAIMI.

During yesterday’s presentation Francisco González, President of the BBVA Foundation, firmly positioned this newly launched initiative at the centre of the Foundation’s programmes aimed at promoting biomedical research in collaboration with research institutes of excellence, “this collaboration will further spur the essential flow of knowledge from bench to bedside and back, as well as drive the necessary insights into therapies and translate them into benefits for patients, he observes.

Cancer immunotherapy: a dynamic contender in dismantling cancer’s armoury

Instead of attacking cancer cells, immunotherapy stimulates the immune system’s own capacity for distinguishing tumour cells from healthy cells, potentiating its capacity to eliminate cancer cells in a highly specific manner.

One of its particular strengths is that it can generate a ´recall´ response to trigger the immune system to recognise and attack tumour cells. Immuno-based therapies can thus generate long-lasting responses and, in some patients, result in complete disappearance of a tumour, even in advanced disease. In addition, treatment with immunotherapeutics can stimulate a patient’s own immune system as opposed to specifically honing in on cancer cells, and has already been shown as effective against various tumour types including melanoma, kidney, bladder, and lung cancers.

This efficacy paired with long-lasting anti-cancer action has led to significant, previously inconceivable, advances against particularly virulent forms of cancer such as melanoma. “Thanks to immunotherapy, we have seen that mean survival in advanced disease can increase from nine months to approximately two years, and we hope that this will extend further with the advent of novel immune-based therapies, either as mono therapy or in combination”, highlights Elena Garralda, who will direct CAIMI´s clinical research.

While these developments must be celebrated, the power and potential of immunotherapies varies tremendously in patients since some tumours manage to block immune system defence or even slip straight past undetected. Furthermore, much research will need to centre on better predicting response to these therapies in individual patients and thus progress precision medicine in oncology.

CAIMI will focus on agents that inhibit checkpoint regulation of the immune system, that is, the mechanism by which the immune system is controlled and avoids attacking its own organism when healthy. “The strategies that tumour cells employ include blocking this function so that they are free to multiply. Checkpoint inhibitors release the brakes and allow immune cells to attack tumours”, comments Alena Gros, who will lead CAIMI’s translational research.

Agents inhibiting immune system checkpoints, “represent a genuine revolution in oncology and have led to new and much needed therapeutic avenues for the treatment of lung, kidney, skin, bladder, and head and neck cancers”, continues Alena Gros. VHIO has actively contributed to developing atezolizumab. This therapy was approved in 2016 and was celebrated as the first new treatment against bladder cancer in two decades. Recent studies have since revealed that it can also improve survival in patients with non-small-cell lung cancer. “By stimulating the immune system’s own capacity for destroying cancer cells as opposed to specifically eliminating a tumour cells directly, we are now finding that certain immunotherapies can be used to treat multiple tumour types”, says Elena Garralda.

VHIO is currently conducting 30 early phase studies with experimental immunotherapeutics either as mono therapy or in combination. To potentiate these efforts, CAIMI will implement a programme to investigate mechanisms of resistance and response to these therapies and prioritise the early development of those agents showing most promise. One key goal will be to characterise the antigens that contribute to tumour regression following treatment with checkpoint inhibitors.

In parallel, CAIMI’s teams will search for predictive response biomarkers to more accurately determine which patients would be most likely to benefit from immune-based therapies, and in so doing, render treatments more precise. To this end, CAIMI will benefit from VHIO’s internationally recognised prescreening platform, directed and developed by Ana Vivancos, Principal Investigator of its Cancer Genomics Group. As one of the few centres in Europe to run such a comprehensive programme, VHIO performs the molecular profiling in around 1500 patients per year as candidates for enrollment in its early clinical trials, enabling a more accurate matching of an increasing number of individual patients to specific studies.

The data generated over the last few years on biomarkers for personalised cancer therapies will be at the disposal of CAIMI. Findings driven by the project such as the identification of new markers of response to experimental immunotherapies, will then be translated and incorporated in VHIO’s prescreening programme.

“Not only are we dedicated to extending immune-based treatments as mono therapy to more tumour types, we are also combining powerful immunotherapeutic agents with the current cornerstones of cancer. Through programmes such as CAIMI, we aim to better understand the cellular and molecular mechanisms modulating immune response to cancer as well as learn from the outcomes of our current and future clinical trials”, concludes Josep Tabernero.

 

For more information please contact: Amanda Wren, Director of Communications at VHIO: awren@vhio.net.

###