USC Researchers Among Scientists, Clinicians Funded by Stand Up 2 Cancer Initiative

 Peter Jones

When the Stand Up 2 Cancer initiative hosted its third televised fundraiser on Sept. 7, 2012, a team of basic researchers and clinical researchers funded by the initiative at the University of Southern California (USC) Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital took a moment to reflect on the work they’ve done in the three years since their SU2C grant award. Then it was back to work on clinical trials and other research that all agree are moving forward at an unprecedented rate toward important new discoveries in cancer treatment.

“It’s been very exciting working with Stand Up 2 Cancer,” said Peter Jones, professor of urology and biochemistry & molecular biology at the Keck School and co-leader of one of five “Dream Teams” that won initial funding in 2009 from the Stand Up 2 Cancer initiative, a program of the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF). “We’ve made great progress. I think our team might be further along than some of the others, and we could be looking at some major breakthroughs.”

Jones, along with Keck School of Medicine of USC clinical researchers Barbara Gitlitz, Anthony El-Khoueiry, Casey O’Connell and Agustin Garcia and basic scientist Peter Laird have been studying epigenetic therapy and cancer management in cancers of the lung, breast, colon and blood. The research looks into how genes become switched on and off, and how this leads to cancer, Jones said.


Barbara Gitlitz and Anthony El-Khoueriy at the Stand Up 2 Cancer event Sept. 7

The grant is shared by Johns Hopkins University’s Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The Stand Up 2 Cancer fundraising event was broadcast on the four major TV networks, plus more than 15 cable networks. The celebrity packed event featured appearances by Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Jessica Biel, Samuel L. Jackson, Taylor Swift, Alicia Keys and many more.

The purpose of the event was to build public support for translational cancer research, bringing therapies more quickly from the “bench” (laboratory) to the “bedside” (patients).

As the lead clinician coordinating all the clinical research under the SU2C grant at USC, El-Khoueriy, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School, applauded the collaboration that the grant has made possible, with different institutions and within USC.

“It has brought a large team together at USC and across institutions,” he said. “At USC, it has brought clinicians and basic scientists together for the first time. We have never worked together like this. The grant gave us a framework to come together, learn about discoveries made in lab and to think collectively and collaboratively about how to bring them to clinic.”

Some of the most promising research has been done with lung cancer. Gitlitz, a clinical researcher who is an associate professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School, will soon embark on the next phase of clinical trials for lung cancer that tests a combination of epigenetic therapy and immunotherapy that has shown positive results in the lab and was a major observation from the first lung cancer clinical trial funded by the SU2C grant.

“We found people whose cancer cells were primed with epigenetic therapy and received immunotherapy had a better quality response,” she said. “Also, patients who received epigenetic therapy and later went on to chemotherapy responded way better than expected to the chemotherapy.”

The grant is also supporting a clinical trial for colon cancer, the first phase of which was recently completed by El-Khoueiry. He, along with the investigators at other collaborating institutions such as Hopkins, are currently evaluating the data to determine a possible course for a second phase. In addition, he is working with Jones and Laird, as well as colleagues from the USC School of Pharmacy and the USC Liver Center, conducting preclinical lab work on testing epigenetics to treat liver cancer. This collaboration came about as a direct result of the SU2C collaboration, El-Khoueriy said.

“It has created synergy beyond the grant,” he said.

O’Connell, assistant professor of clinical medicine in the Jane Anne Nohl Division of Hematology at the Keck School, is conducting a clinical trial as part of the grant to test the safety and efficacy of a new drug to treat acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a pre-leukemic bone marrow condition. Patients are tolerating the drug remarkably well, she said, and the trial is currently in an expansion phase aimed to assess efficacy.

“The collaboration has been a completely unique experience,” she said. “It has been incredible from the standpoint of both mentorship and science. We’ve had an unprecedented opportunity to understand and apply exactly what’s going on at the bench from the major leaders in the field.”


Agustin Garcia

Garcia, associate professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School, is conducting a clinical trial to test epigenetic therapy on hormone receptive positive cancer and triple negative breast cancer, testing theories similar to Gitlitz and El-Khoueriy.

“We are first evaluating if epigenetic therapy is effective by itself in two groups of patients with breast cancer,” he said. “In the patients with hormone receptor positive breast cancer, we expect that prior treatment with epigenetic therapy could restore the sensitivity to hormonal treatments. There are very few effective treatments for patients with triple negative breast cancer but we hypothesize that this new way of treating cancer may be effective.”

Garcia and Yvonne Lin, assistant professor in the division of gynecologic oncology, will also soon launch a clinical trial in ovarian cancer to explore if epigenetic therapy may either affect tumors or prime cells so they respond to chemotherapy better, restoring the cells’ original sensitivity to treatment after the chemotherapy appears to have stopped working.

For Garcia, the collaboration enabled by the grant has given a significant boost to the “war on cancer” being waged by scientists and clinicians over the past 40 years.

“One of the problems with past research has been that researchers were competing against each other,” he said. “This grant has developed something different – more long-term partnerships among leading cancer institutions. It’s the best model we have come up with to do cutting-edge research.”

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