RESEARCHERS AT LA JOLLA INSTITUTE for Immunology and University of California (UC), San Diego, have been awarded $4.5 million as part of the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Moonshot initiative. The funding will support research to develop new and improved immunotherapeutic options for patients with head and neck cancer.
Stephen Schoenberger, PhD
Led by Stephen Schoenberger, PhD, Professor of La Jolla Institute for Immunology, the collaborative research effort is part of the Immuno-Oncology Translational Network, which was established as part of the Cancer Moonshot. Its express goal was to accelerate translation of basic discoveries into clinical applications to improve immunotherapy outcomes.
This effort brings together researchers and clinicians at La Jolla Institute for Immunology and the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center to advance current immunotherapeutic options and develop novel precision approaches, such as personalized cancer vaccines and cellular therapies, for the treatment of head and neck cancer and related malignancies.
“Neoantigens offer an unprecedented opportunity for attacking tumors in a specific and effective manner based on the altered genes they express,” explained Dr. Schoenberger. “This funding will accelerate the development of new therapies based on this premise.”
Tumor-associated neoantigens are the result of tumor-specific genetic alterations or—as is often the case in head and neck cancer—the random integration of human papillomavirus into the genome. Identifying clinically relevant neoantigens in cancers with moderate levels of mutations, such as head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, has proved to be challenging.
Bjoern Peters, PhD
“Tumor neoantigens are highly variable, and no two tumors are alike, which represents a challenge but also the opportunity to create highly personalized treatments,” explained Bjoern Peters, PhD, a bioinformatician at La Jolla Institute for Immunology, who has developed a number of tools to predict and analyze which parts of a pathogen, allergen, or cancer cell is recognized and targeted by the immune system. “As we learn more about which features trigger a strong immune response, we can fine-tune our predictions.”
Focus of Study
BUILDING ON their expertise in predicting and verifying neoantigen T-cell responses, Dr. Schoenberger’s team will specifically focus on identifying tumor neoantigens that can “fire up” tumor-specific immune responses. The validated neoantigens will be further analyzed in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma tumor models in collaboration with J. Silvio Gutkind, PhD, Associate Director, Basic Science at Moores Cancer Center, who is particularly interested in the molecular basis of oral and head and neck cancers. As part of the collaboration, Anjana Rao, PhD, Professor at La Jolla Institute for Immunology, will explore the role of T-cell exhaustion in mouse and human head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. ■