News Release

SAN DIEGO — Robert Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, the Hanna Wise Professor in Cancer Research in the Abramson Cancer Center and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, will be a co-leader on the recently announced Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C)-Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Convergence Dream Team.  

The new effort, titled “Transforming Pancreatic Cancer to a Treatable Disease,” was announced here today by SU2C and The Lustgarten Foundation, along with the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), SU2C’s Scientific Partner, at a press event during the AACR Annual Meeting 2014.

Armed with $8 million in funding over the course of three years, Dr. Vonderheide and investigators from Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center and several other institutions will work together to develop new therapies to harness patients’ own immune cells to treat pancreatic cancer. Dr. Vonderheide will work closely with Dream Team leader Elizabeth M. Jaffee, MD, professor of oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-director of the Gastrointestinal Cancers Program at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.

“Now is the time to bring new discoveries in immune therapy to our patients with pancreatic cancer,” said Dr. Vonderheide, a medical oncologist who also serves as associate director for Translational Research at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. “We have made great strides in better understanding pancreatic tumor immunology in the last few years, and a grant of this magnitude will help propel that research further. New discoveries will lead to newly-improved immunotherapies that we hope will have profound changes to the way we treat and deliver care to these patients.” 

The SU2C-Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Convergence Dream Team consists of a multidisciplinary group of experts that includes laboratory and clinical researchers, young investigators and senior scientists in the fields of immunotherapy, genetics, and pathology, among others.  Other institutions on the team include University of California, San Francisco, Oregon Health & Science University, Washington University in St. Louis, New York University Langone Medical Center, Stanford University, University of Cambridge, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Despite advances in treating cancers like leukemia and melanoma with immunotherapy, such clinical efforts for pancreatic cancer lag behind, making new approaches to fight the disease greatly needed. Today, people diagnosed with the cancer face a grim prognosis.

Based on initial, promising clinical trial runs, the Dream Team’s goal is to “re-program” the tissue around patients’ tumors to fuel immune responses that will spur destruction of the tumor. 

Dr. Vonderheide and his team have specifically focused on activating immune cells including T cells and macrophages to invade the dense tissue surrounding the tumors in order to mechanize immune response.  Publishing in the journal Science, the researchers found that treating the cancer with special antibodies shrunk tumors in combination with chemotherapy by activating the macrophages. Best described as a Trojan horse approach, the tumor still calls in macrophages, but re-educates them to attack – not promote – the tumor. 

“This research pointed us to a new approach for drug development,” said Dr. Vonderheide. “We learned that the immunology of the pancreatic cancer is very complex but also there are more possibilities to exploit. We need to explore this tumor environment further and develop better agents that will help improve treatment effectiveness.”

The Dream Team also includes pancreatic cancer advocate Richard Vague, a Penn Medicine Board Member and managing partner of Gabriel Investments.  Mr. Vague has put forth tremendous support for pancreatic translational research at Penn Medicine. In addition to endowing professorship at Penn for immunotherapy pioneer Carl June, MD, a professor in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and director of translational research in the Abramson Cancer Center, Mr. Vague has funded several of Dr. Vonderheide’s research projects.

The new Dream Team, which is also being supported in part by a gift to SU2C from the Fox Family Cancer Research Funding Trust, will conduct combination clinical trials and preclinical studies that focus on new immune suppressive pathways and establish immune biomarkers and new multi-agent approaches.  A pancreatic cancer biobank for tumors will also be established.

The project is estimated to start July 2014, with innovative clinical trials scheduled to open within the first year.

Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $5.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 18 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $373 million awarded in the 2015 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center -- which are recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report -- Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2015, Penn Medicine provided $253.3 million to benefit our community.

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