Thoracic Oncology (Lung Cancer) Translational Center of Excellence

Researcher in lab

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than from colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. 

Despite being less funded than many other cancer types, exciting diagnostic and treatment advances are beginning to emerge; however, more rapid progress is needed. The goal of the Thoracic Oncology Translational Center of Excellence (TCE) is to accelerate our pace of discovery so that we can provide patients with meaningful options they need right now.

Leading-Edge Research Guided by Unwavering Hope

Led by Steve Albelda, MD and Corey Langer, MD, the Thoracic Oncology TCE is a multidisciplinary initiative that brings together experts from diverse fields (PDF). Devoted to rapidly moving basic and translational discoveries to the clinic, the Thoracic TCE places special emphasis on the fields of immunotherapy and immunobiology.

Lung Cancer is approached at Penn in a multidisciplinary fashion from both the clinical and research perspective using the infrastructure of the Abramson Cancer Center’s interdisciplinary Thoracic Oncology Program (ITOP). The ITOP:

  • Helps launch new clinical programs, such as an integrated smoking cessation/nodule detection and lung cancer screening clinic
  • Identifies best treatment practices in using proton therapy, in combination with systematic therapy, for lung cancer
  • Improves cancer detection during surgical removal of tumors
  • Refines molecular “fingerprinting” of thoracic cancer
  • Uncovers biomarkers and uses circulating tumor cells and circulating tumor-free DNA to predict responses to treatment

The Thoracic TCE functions within the ITOP with a specific focus on the immunobiology and immunotherapy of thoracic cancers. The Thoracic TCE:

  • Defines how the immune system affects the growth and spread of lung and other thoracic malignancies
  • Develops novel immunotherapy approaches for mesothelioma, small cell, non-small cell lung cancer, and other thoracic malignancies

The Thoracic TCE has made significant progress in these goals by:

1. Translating CAR T-cells

CAR T-cells are genetically modified white blood cells that have been engineered to specifically attack a patient’s cancer. It is a personalized immunotherapy technique developed at the Abramson Cancer Center that harnesses the power of the immune system to combat cancer. It has shown great success in blood cancers and is now being adopted to treat mesothelioma and lung cancer.

2. Developing investigator-initiated projects with industry

Investigator-initiated projects are being developed in concert with pharmaceutical companies to maximize support. The Thoracic TCE continues to actively seek extramural funding to maintain the sustainability of the TCE (PDF)

3. Developing translational projects

Using TCE and industry funding, our investigators have been working on several translational projects (PDF). These include: 
  • Analyzing the lung cancer tumor microenvironment
  • Identifying tumor-specific biomarkers to optimize selection of targeted therapies and to better predict response to therapy
  • Delineating determinants of response to checkpoint inhibition
  • Assessing the role of tumor mutational burden (TMB) in predicting immunotherapy response
  • Improving cancer detection during surgery
  • Optimizing CAR T-cells

4. Developing research databases

Led by Christiana Davis, MD, (in collaboration with Dr. Peter Gabriel, Chief Oncology Informatics Officer and Abigail Doucette, MPH, Research Registry Program Manager), the Thoracic TCE has established project-based databases to track the demographics and response status of patients to immune-oncology treatments, as well as acquired resistance to standard therapies and novel targeted immunotherapies. 

Using recently enhanced search tools that allow us to screen the Penn Data Store, EPIC, Text Information Extraction System (TIES) and other electronic medical records to identify patients with specific characteristics, the Thoracic TCE creates tailored databases (REDCap and/or Spreadsheets) to meet specific projects’ needs. These databases have also become a crucial link in the identification and development of novel markers of outcome.

5. Promoting meaningful collaborations

The TCE hosts an annual retreat (PDF) to review recently completed, ongoing, and planned lung cancer immunotherapy trials, as well as other related studies and to host an outside invited speaker. The retreats have attracted an audience of approximately 50 clinical and translational researchers. 

Attendees who are not TCE members have the opportunity to hear about ongoing projects and establish meaningful collaborations. Our investigators have contributed to several publications (PDF) in high profile journals.