Donald M. O’Rourke, MD
PHILADELPHIA — Today, Penn Medicine is announcing the newest Translational Center of Excellence (TCE) in the Abramson Cancer Center, focused on Glioblastoma Multiforme, the most common and lethal form of brain cancer. The team will investigate new immune therapies for glioblastoma and, in particular, design and test new CAR T cell therapies. This involves engineering patients’ T cells (the cells that act on behalf of the immune system) to attack tumor cells. The world’s first gene-based cancer therapy, immunotherapy – or CAR T cell therapy – was pioneered at Penn Medicine, and it became the nation’s first FDA-approved personalized cellular therapy for cancer in August 2017.
Roughly 15,000 people are diagnosed with glioblastoma each year, with a median survival rate of only 15 months. Recently, and most notably, Senator John McCain died 13 months after his glioblastoma diagnosis. Penn Medicine is on the frontlines in the fight against brain tumors like glioblastoma, with the Penn Brain Tumor Center performing the most brain tumor surgeries in Pennsylvania.
M. Sean Grady, MD
“Penn Medicine is at the cutting-edge of research and clinical care for patients with glioblastoma, and our TCE will help accelerate this mission-critical work,” said Donald M. O’Rourke, MD, John Templeton, Jr., MD Associate Professor in Neurosurgery in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “Immunotherapy is a game-changer for aggressive forms of cancer and Penn is the only institution in the United States researching this kind of combined CAR-T and checkpoint inhibitor therapy for glioblastoma right now.”
The TCE, a partnership of the Abramson Cancer Center and the department of Neurosurgery, is led by O’Rourke, and brings together multidisciplinary teams across Penn, including investigators from Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Systems Pharmacology and Translational Medicine, Medicine, Neurosurgery, Radiation Oncology, and Medicine and Pathobiology at the School of Veterinary Medicine.
In addition to novel treatment options like immunotherapy, the Abramson Cancer Center and Penn Brain Tumor Center have a full arsenal of medical and surgical approaches for treating glioblastoma. These include more traditional methods such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgical resection, as well as new innovations such as TumorGlow and proton therapy.
“The real cutting-edge breakthroughs are coming from immunotherapy,” said M. Sean Grady, MD, chairman of the department of Neurosurgery. “Getting to a cure is going to be difficult, there is no way around that. However, in the 32 years I have been a neurosurgeon, this is the first time I’ve thought ‘yes, we can actually beat brain cancer.’”
Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, excellence in patient care, and community service. The organization consists of the University of Pennsylvania Health System and Penn’s Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine, founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school.
The Perelman School of Medicine is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $550 million awarded in the 2022 fiscal year. Home to a proud history of “firsts” in medicine, Penn Medicine teams have pioneered discoveries and innovations that have shaped modern medicine, including recent breakthroughs such as CAR T cell therapy for cancer and the mRNA technology used in COVID-19 vaccines.
The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities stretch from the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania to the New Jersey shore. These include the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Chester County Hospital, Lancaster General Health, Penn Medicine Princeton Health, and Pennsylvania Hospital—the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.
Penn Medicine is an $11.1 billion enterprise powered by more than 49,000 talented faculty and staff.