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Cancer Immunotherapy Program

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Por: Augusto Ochoa, MD

Research produces advances in treatment that can help prolong and save lives now being lost to cancer. LSU Health New Orleans, in collaboration with its partners, has built a statewide network to bring new clinical trials to patients to study the safety and effectiveness of new drugs and treatments. We were able to develop a Cancer Immunotherapy Program. As a result, LSU Health New Orleans is now being invited to participate in studies investigating the latest and most promising approaches to cancer treatments. One such study is a clinical trial to determine the effectiveness of MK-3475 (pembrolizumab) in treating patients with Merkel cell cancer that cannot be removed by surgery, or controlled with treatment, or has spread to other parts of the body. It is the first systemic intervention for patients with advanced Merkel cell carcinoma. Pembrolizumab is an immunotherapy drug. Immunotherapy works differently than chemotherapy in that it boosts the body’s own natural defense system to help fight cancer. LSU Health New Orleans is one of 11 sites in the country selected to enroll patients in this clinical trial.

Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is an aggressive form of skin cancer. It is linked to exposure to ultraviolet rays, but about 80% of cases are associated with a virus called Merkel cell polyomavirus. There are currently no FDA-approved drugs to treat Merkel cell carcinoma. While some patients do respond to chemotherapy, after about three months, the disease typically progresses, leaving patients with few, if any, treatment options.

The Cancer Immunotherapy Program will also lay the foundation for future opportunities in the areas of:

Cancer Biology and Genomics: The genetic background of an individual contributes to the susceptibility for developing certain diseases. Previously seen only as a basic research tool, genomics is now a rapidly emerging field of research with an ever growing clinical significance and direct application to patient care. The clinical application of genomics has been placed under the general concept of “Personalized Medicine” where DNA sequencing and gene expression will become the routine clinical laboratory tests of the future with which clinicians can plan prevention and treatment strategies and decide on follow-up. Furthermore, by virtue of the population served by LSU Health New Orleans, the Center could become a leader in the genomics of specific populations such as the African American, Hispanic and Vietnamese populations.

Health Disparities: The study of health disparities has started to show that the differences in the presentation and outcome of diseases among races are not only related to socio-economic determinants, but also to biological and genetic differences. This has become even more significant since the response to treatment is not the same among the different racial groups. This is an opportunity to develop research programs that would study long-term outcomes among the different groups with the eventual goal of tailoring treatments accordingly.

These research undertakings will provide a unique opportunity to bring together clinical programs and focused basic research to develop a unique translational research center that will add to the growing stature of the Louisiana Cancer Research Center. The opportunities described within will promote LSU Health New Orleans’ Stanley S. Scott Cancer Center as a national referral site for patients with viral diseases such as Merkel Cell Carcinoma. Moreover, these programs will help us create a unique state-of-the-art cancer immunotherapy program that will provide access to all new research and clinical advances in the use of these immunotherapies for cancer patients in Louisiana and the region.

       
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