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Eric Rosenthal Reports
Thoughts and observations about issues, trends, and controversies in the cancer community.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014

 

SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) announced new areas of cancer research and additional research award recipients last week at the American Association for Cancer Research’s Annual Meeting here.

 

An HPV Translational Research Team Grant investigating new approaches to developing novel immune therapies for HPV-related cancers, and a second Dream Team dedicated to pancreatic cancer focusing on novel immunotherapies highlighted the research award announcements, which also included naming the recipients of the SU2C-Phillip A. Sharp Innovation in Collaboration Awards.

Ellis L. Reinherz, MD, Chief of the Laboratory of Immunobiology and Co-director of the Cancer Vaccine Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and

Robert I. Haddad, MD, Chief of the Head and Neck Oncology Program, also at Dana-Farber  were named Leader and Co-leader, respectively, of the SU2C-Farrah Fawcett Foundation HPV Translational Research Team, receiving $1.2 million over a three-year period.

 

Their research project, “Therapeutic CD8 Vaccines Against Conserved E7 HPV Epitopes Identified by MS,” will focus on treatments for patients with HPV-associated cancers -- including anal, cervical, and head and neck cancers -- who have disease relapse after initial therapy.

 

“Stand Up’s collaboration with the Farrah Fawcett Foundation [with additional support from the HPV and Anal Cancer Foundation] is another example of our breaking down the ‘silos of science and foundations,’” said Sherry Lansing, a SU2C Co-founder and Chair of the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s (EIF) Board of Directors.

 

It’s also another example of how longtime Hollywood connections can lead to future ventures in medical research. Lansing, Founder of her namesake foundation and former CEO of Paramount Pictures, recalled during an interview that she had first met Fawcett more than 40 years ago when they were both models in an Alberto Culver television commercial: “I was the brunette and she was the blonde and Tom Selleck was my boyfriend in the commercial,” she said. Although she and Fawcett were just acquaintances then, they spent more time together over the years, through mutual friends and at various events.

 

Lansing said she always respected the deep, loving friendship between Fawcett and Alana Stewart, the actor and talk show host who produced the 2009 NBC-TV documentary Farrah’s Story, and is Founder and President of the Farrah Fawcett Foundation.

 

Lansing said that she considered that all of Fawcett’s accomplishments as an actor paled in comparison to what happened after her anal cancer had been diagnosed in 2006: “She was extraordinarily brave and did not hide her cancer or complain, and went public and wanted to help others,” Lansing said. 

 

After Fawcett died in 2009, Lansing said that Stewart asked her advice about setting up a foundation, and their friendship grew from there. Several years later, they entered the formal collaboration that resulted in the translational research team. 

 

Lansing also credited actor Michael Douglas with increasing awareness about HPV-associated cancers, adding: “No stigma should be attached to anyone with any type of cancer. It is not their fault.”

 

Other Awards

The SU2C-Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Convergence Dream Team, with additional support from the Fox Family Research Funding Trust, granted $8 million over three years to Team Leader Elizabeth M. Jaffee, MD, Professor of Oncology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Co-director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Program at the Hopkins’ Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Co-leader Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, Associate Director for Translational Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center and Hanna Wise Professor in Cancer Research at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

 

Their research will work on developing new therapies using pancreatic cancer patients’ own immune cells. The first pancreatic cancer SU2C Dream Team, formed in 2009 and led by Craig B. Thompson, MD, and Daniel D. Von Hoff, MD, focused on “Cutting Off the Fuel Supply: A New Approach to the Treatment of Pancreatic Cancer.”

 

The inaugural SU2C-Sharp Innovation in Collaboration Awards were made to encourage current SU2C scientists to explore synergistic and innovative collaborations that would further enhance the mission to accelerate new cancer treatments, according to a news release. Recipients are:

 

  • David B. Solit, MD, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, on the Melanoma Dream Team, and Nikolaus Schultz, PhD, also of MSKCC, on the Prostate Cancer Dream Team, to develop a web-based data management and computational resource as a SU2C-wide tumor genetic and biological data warehouse;
  • Stephen B. Baylin, MD, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, on the Epigenetics Dream Team, and James P. Allison, PhD, of MD Anderson Cancer Center, on the Immunology Dream Team, who will focus on combining epigenetic therapy with immune checkpoint inhibition in cancer treatment;
  • Dennis J. Slamon, MD, PhD, of UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, on the Breast Cancer Dream Team, and Tak W. Mak, PhD, of the University of Toronto and a member of SU2C’s Scientific Advisory Committee, to work on characterizing novel drugs targeting an important pathway in breast cancer;
  • Dana Pe’er, PhD, of Columbia University, an Innovation Research Grant recipient, and Padmanee Sharma, MD, PhD, of MD Anderson, on the Immunology Dream Team, to develop new computational technology for analyzing and visualizing tumor immune responses in patients treated with experimental immunotherapies; and
  • Roger S. Lo, MD, PhD, of UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and another Innovation Research Grant recipient, and Jeffrey A. Sosman, MD, of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, on the Melanoma Dream Team, to develop genome-scale analyses of melanoma treatment sensitivity and resistance.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

SAN DIEGO -- The American Association for Cancer Research, which has long supported young cancer researchers, honored an even younger one, a high school senior, with its first “AACR Junior Champion in Cancer Research Award” at this year’s Annual Meeting here.

 

Elana Simon, an 18-year-old survivor of fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma, was recognized for her role in studying her own rare cancer that resulted in a paper she coauthored in Science (2014; 343:1010-1014).

 

Diagnosed at age 12 after more than a year of frustrating misdiagnoses including lactose intolerance, Crohn’s disease, appendicitis, and stress, Simon was successfully treated through surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center by Pediatric Surgical Service Chief Michael P. La Quaglia, MD, another coauthor of the study that found a gene flaw involved in the rare liver cancer, which is diagnosed in only about 200 young adults worldwide each year.

 

The genetic flaw she helped discover was a break that fused part of one gene to part of another one, causing a chimeric RNA transcript and protein. This abnormal protein was found in all 15 tumors studied, but not in normal liver tissue, suggesting that it might fuel cancer growth, according to the paper.

 

The team that studied the genetic flaw was spearheaded by Simon, now a senior at the Dalton School in New York, who had been inspired by a sophomore year internship at a laboratory at Mount Sinai Hospital that used her computer science skills to help sort genetic mutation data for pancreatic cancer.

 

The team included Simon; La Quaglia; gene specialists from the New York Genome Center (NYGC); her father, Sanford M. Simon, PhD, Professor and Head of Rockefeller University’s Cellular Biophysics Laboratory; members of his lab; and another survivor who preferred not to be identified.

 

Elana Simon was “co-first” author with Joshua N. Honeyman, MD, a pediatric oncology surgery fellow from MSKCC working in the Simon lab, and NYGC’s Nicolas Robine, PhD, with Sanford Simon serving as senior author.

 

During an interview at the AACR meeting I met with Elana, as well as her father and mother, Rachael Migler, a writer.

 

Her older brother Joel did not travel west from Carnegie Mellon, where he is an undergraduate, but when he was just 15 he apparently posed some interesting insights into approaching Elana’s treatment, and will be a coauthor with his father and others on another scientific paper.

 

Elana was keynote speaker at AACR’s “Special Program for High School Students: The Conquest of Cancer and the Next Generation of Cancer Researchers.”

 

She received her AACR Junior Champion award at the conference’s opening plenary session, which featured a video of her story.

 

She said that when she applied to work in the Mount Sinai lab to sequence genes she did not let anyone there know that she was a cancer survivor or that her father was a scientist.

 

Nor did her father or mother have any idea that their daughter was involved in cancer research. It turned out that since she was so busy with various extracurricular activities she was able to use dance as a cover for her cancer research.

 

Sanford Simon said when a teacher told him how well his daughter was doing on her school project, he immediately assumed it involved her dancing, and only learned then of her time in the lab. “I was so proud,” he said, adding that he wanted to respect his daughter’s space.

 

Elana said that she was initially reluctant to work in her dad’s lab at Rockefeller University because she didn’t want to appear to be there because of familial ties. But when she thought about using her computer skills to sequence the rare cancer she began working in the Simon Laboratory, as well as with La Quaglia and colleagues from NYGC, who genetically mapped the samples.

 

She said she reasoned that it would be easier to identify genetic mutations in the tumors of young patients rather than older ones since the genome would be altered by years of aging and environmental factors. Since no cancer registry was available for fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma, La Quaglia provided samples from other patients and Elana used social media to reach out to other patient groups.

 

Funding was provided by the Fibrolamellar Cancer Foundation (FCF) as well as individual donors touched by the disease, with additional support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, NYGC, Rockefeller University’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science, and through an anonymous gift to Rockefeller University. Sanford Simon now serves as Chairman of FCF’s Scientific Advisory Board.

 

Research is continuing at the Simon lab to test the effects of the chimera on human liver cells and mouse livers. The Simons are also setting up a patient registry, and Elana and another young survivor are featured in a video explaining why they are involved in recruiting patients.

 

The Simons said that within 36 hours after the Science article was published they received confirmation of the same sequence from researchers at Washington University, and later from the University of Washington and Stanford University.

 

“I’m totally thrilled with the cancer research community’s cooperation,” Sanford Simon said. “It had the feeling of a community of people.”

 

He said that earlier this year he received a call from AACR 2013-2014 President Charles L. Sawyers, MD, whose lab at Sloan Kettering is across the street from Rockefeller. “Charles said that he saw Elana’s interview on Wall Street Journal Live and thought she’d be a good role model for other kids. He called me first because he didn’t want to overwhelm her or seem as if he were taking advantage.”

 

When Sawyers called Elana he asked if she would be interested in talking in front of a large audience about research and the importance of investing in it, according to Elana, who said there was no mention of a special award at that time.

 

Elana told OT that for years following her diagnosis and surgery she had pushed being a cancer survivor out of her life. “When people asked about my big scar I’d tell them it was from a shark bite because I didn’t want them to pity me,” she said. “I wanted the scar to go away and bought as much scar tape as I could.”

 

But a summer at Camp Simcha, a Jewish-run camp for children with cancer and other hematologic illnesses helped transform her into a proud survivor.

 

“I no longer felt like a victim and came to accept my scar,” she said, writing her college essay about how the camp helped her accept her scar.

 

And that essay contributed to her acceptance at Harvard University, where she will start in the fall, expecting to major in computer science.

 

San Diego, CA - The AACR 2014 Annual Meeting -  Award Presentations During Opening Ceremony at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting here today, Sunday April 6, 2014. More than 18,000 physicians, researchers, health care professionals, cancer survivors and patient advocates are expected to attend the meeting at the San Diego Convention Center. The Annual Meeting highlights the latest findings in all major areas of cancer research from basic through clinical and epidemiological studies.  Photo by © AACR/Todd Buchanan 2014 Technical Questions: todd@medmeetingimages.com
 
 
Photos: AACR 2014/Todd Buchanan

Monday, April 07, 2014

 

SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Continuing its clarion call to motivate scientists and clinicians to advocate on behalf of cancer research funding one year after convening the 2013 Rally for Medical Research at last year’s Annual Meeting in Washington DC, AACR yesterday held a science policy session titled “NIH and NCI Funding: How the AACR and Our Partners are Taking a Stand Against the Decades-Long Decline in Federal Funding for Research and Development.”

 

The perspectives of an AACR government affairs and science policy expert, former member of Congress, patient advocate, and cancer center director were expressed during a panel discussion. Speakers lamented the serious funding crisis that peaked last year when the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute’s budgets were decreased five percent by the sequestration -- amounting to about $1.6 billion overall, including a $293 million cut for NCI.

 

Although the Consolidated Appropriations Act passed this January did restore some of these cuts, current funding is still lower than prior to sequestration, and AACR would like advocates to take advantage of the November elections to urge members of Congress to recommit to making funding of NIH and NCI a national priority.

 

Jon G. Retzlaff, AACR Managing Director of Science Policy and Government Affairs, said that there will not be any additional funding for fiscal year 2015 -- meaning that, at best, funding will remain flat.

 

“The President’s budget is proposing a $200 million increase for NIH, but it will be a challenge to get Congress to pass it,” he said in an interview following the session. In addition, he said, after the 2016 election sequestration is scheduled to take place again unless there is a change in law.

 

The NIH budget has not kept up with biomedical inflation -- losing 22 percent over the last decade. “It’s a bad year to have a good idea,” he said. “This is the time to act, before the November elections.” 

 

The leadership of AACR, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the Association of American Cancer Institutes, and Friends of Cancer Research will hold a joint “Hill Day” on May 8, and on September 18, AACR and other organizations will hold a grassroots Rally for Medical Research Capitol Hill Day in Washington. 

 

Last year’s Hill Day in September brought together some 180 organizations representing 40 states. Retzlaff said that all AACR members are encouraged to attend this year, and it is hoped that the number of organizations will double and that all 50 states will be represented.

 

Also speaking at the session, Brian Bilbray, a Republican seven-term congressman representing California’s 50th congressional district who left Congress following defeat in the 2012 elections, said that both he and his daughter had been diagnosed with skin cancer -- his, less serious; and hers, melanoma.

 

He noted that both the left and right factions of Congress were not moving in the same direction and it is  important to get each side to turn to the other a little.

 

“You have to stop being so polite and patient,” he said, addressing scientists. Advocates should “get in the face” of U.S. representatives, and be committed to ending cancer “as we know it” within a finite period as had been done with polio and AIDS (transforming it from a deadly to a manageable disease).

 

“We’re all part of the food chain, and you are the plankton in the food chain," he said. “Without you [the scientific community], pharma has nothing to work with. You are planting the seed for the next great miracle.”

 

He said it is necessary to remind Republicans that without science, industry won’t have the building blocks; and that the private sector and the research community are a team and that neither can do anything without working together.

 

Bilbray pointed out that NIH funding was doubled in the 1990s, but it wasn’t sustainable. It is important now to reach out to new members of Congress immediately after Election Day before they officially start their terms and move to Washington, he said.

 

Also on the panel, Andrea Ferris, President and Chairman of the LUNGevity Foundation, said that involvement in federal advocacy means “putting a face to cancer” -- “You’re talking about people, and patient advocates have to remember that. We have to build communities of meaningful engagement, and train survivors and advocates,” she said. Researchers should partner with patients and advocates because “we are all in this together.”

 

George J. Weiner, MD, Director of the University of Iowa's Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Vice Chair of AACR’s Science Policy and Government Committee, said the tragic reality is that promising to deliver science to patients is in great jeopardy because of funding and partisan politics.

 

He shared his thoughts on advocacy from the viewpoint of a researcher and clinician, saying that only a very small percentage of clinicians and researchers are involved in advocacy. “Our voice needs to be heard more than ever… and it takes very little time to advocate,” he said.

 

Scientists need not go to Washington, he said – they can call, send emails, or visit with legislators when they are back in their home districts and invite them for tours of laboratories or clinics.

 

“I’m really frustrated when researchers say advocating is not their job. But no money, no mission -- it is your job,” Weiner said, also noting that he is from the state that is home to the presidential Iowa caucuses, as well as to biomedical champion Democratic U.S. Senator Tom Harkin.


Monday, March 31, 2014

I just came back from the Association of Health Care Journalists annual conference in Denver, where on Saturday I moderated a panel discussion on the challenges of using genetic information for personalized medicine.

 

The three panelists were:

Carl Morrison, MD, DVM, Executive Director of the Center for Personalized Medicine; Clinical Chief of the Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine; Director of the Division of Molecular Pathology; and Director of the Pathology Resource Network at Roswell Park Cancer Institute;

 

Bryan R. Haugen, MD, Professor of Medicine and Pathology; Chief of the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism & Diabetes; and Director of the Thyroid Tumor Program at the University of Colorado; and

 

Rebecca D. Pentz, PhD, Professor of Research Ethics at Winship Cancer Institute, Emory University School of Medicine.

 

The session provided an overview of what personalized medicine is, how it is being applied, its future, and ethical concerns from the viewpoints of a journalist, clinician researchers, and a research ethicist.

 

I started off by noting that when I was working at a comprehensive cancer center in the 1990s, the institution had one of only 100 cancer genetics counselors in the world. Providing appropriate pre- and post-counseling about the results of genetic tests was considered essential, but that component has often been relegated to the less-qualified with the increased commercialization of genetic testing.

 

I referred to an article I’d written for OT in 2007 regarding Myriad Genetics ill-conceived direct-to-consumer advertising campaign for BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing, and a blog post this past December on the proliferation of marketing information at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium about new commercial BRCA testing; this was in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier in the year that restricted the patenting of human genes, and in effect ended Myriad’s monopoly of the BRCA genetic mutation testing market. 

 

Morrison defined (by way of Wikipedia) personal or precision medicine as a “medical model that proposed the customization of health care with medical decisions, practices, and products being tailored to the individual patients.”

 

He noted that personalized medicine:

  • isn’t new;
  • will be much different in a few years;
  • is currently in the technological era of genomic sequencing; and
  • the next step will be the clinical utility era.

He said that the current issues in personalized medicine involve (1) defining “actionable”; (2) designing and implementing actionable screening tests; (3) providing unambiguous information to the ordering physician; and (4) cost effectiveness.

 

Lung cancer is leading the way in personalized medicine, he added.

 

Haugen said that thyroid cancer is more common than many people think – it is now the fourth most diagnosed cancer in women and is on track to become the second most diagnosed cancer in women (after breast cancer) by the 2020s.

 

He said that as a clinician he was frustrated by unnecessary surgeries and led the validation of a novel molecular test that helped avoid these surgeries in certain patients with thyroid nodules.

 

His institution, the University of Colorado, is now developing a program to integrate biological, clinical, and behavioral data that will drive the development of more precise medicine.

 

Pentz said that the ethical issues involving precision medicine include hype and overselling what is possible; discrimination; incidental findings and whether or not to act on them; lack of true informed consent, and the equitable distribution of and access to targeted therapies.

 

Treatment based on genomic alterations are the future in cancer research, she said, adding that the preferred term by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, among others, is now “precision medicine” rather than “personalized medicine” – since the thinking is that medicine has always been individualized.

 

She noted that there are many barriers to precision medicine and that it is important for journalists to convey to their audiences that scientific advances are incremental, and there will always be updates, corrections, and missteps.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

 
I will be attending the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) annual conference next week in Denver, and this will be my fourth year organizing and moderating a workshop for journalists on medical or scientific subjects with close ties to oncology.

 

In 2011, I led a panel on nanotechnology; in 2012, on translational research; last year, on cancer registries; and this year the topic is “Getting Personal -- The Medical and Ethical Challenges of Using Genetic Information.”

 

The three panelists, who will discuss a spectrum of medical and ethical issues related to personalized medicine, are:

 

 

 

  • Bryan R. Haugen, MD, Professor of Medicine and Pathology; Chief of the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism & Diabetes; and Director of the Thyroid Tumor Program at the University of Colorado (and coincidentally featured in an article in OT’s March 25 Thyroid Cancer Special Edition, discussing upcoming new guidelines for differentiated thyroid cancer);

 

  •  Carl Morrison, MD, DVM, Executive Director of the Center for Personalized Medicine; Clinical Chief of the Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine; Director of the Division of Molecular Pathology; and Director of the Pathology Resource Network at Roswell Park Cancer Institute; and

 

  • Rebecca D. Pentz, PhD, Professor of Research Ethics at Emory University School of Medicine.

Journalists responsible for disseminating medical news and information to the general public as well as to more specialized audiences will benefit from these panelists’ insights and expertise; but the dynamics of the session can also benefit the panelists’ understanding of how journalism works -- a combination that should prove beneficial to the recipients of what’s channeled through the often-complex medical-news dissemination process.

 

I will report back in a future post after the conference about how things went.

 
About the Author

Eric T. Rosenthal
Eric T. Rosenthal has spent more than 40 years in journalism and academic public affairs, more than half of them involved in the cancer community. He has received several journalism awards as Special Correspondent for Oncology Times, and helped organize two national conferences dealing with medicine and the media.