Collaboration in action as Wistar scientists and Christiana Care clinicians exchange ideas

Scientists from The Wistar Institute visited the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute May 22 to exchange ideas with Christiana Care clinicians about their research, which someday may lead to new treatments for people with cancer.

Such collaboration is the hallmark of the historic partnership between the Graham Cancer Center, one of the nation’s largest community cancer centers, and Wistar, a renowned leader in biomedical research focusing on cancer and vaccine development. Last year, the partnership was enhanced by the integration of Christiana Care’s Gene Editing Institute into Wistar’s Molecular Screening Facility.

“The meeting was so they could understand the importance of communication with clinicians to know what the major issues are in the treatment of cancer patients,” said Nicholas J. Petrelli, M.D., Bank of America endowed medical director of the Graham Cancer Center. “The best translational cancer research involves a multidisciplinary team of scientists and clinicians.”

Outside of the resources of pharmaceutical companies, such partnerships and the clinical trials born from them are vital to developing life-saving cancer treatments, said Maureen E. Murphy, Ph.D., professor and program leader of Wistar’s Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program, associate vice president for faculty affairs and associate director for education and career development at Wistar Cancer Center.

“We don’t have millions of dollars that are normally needed for clinical trials,” she said. “Forums like this are going to be the only way to inform clinicians of our promising new research strategies.”

The Graham Cancer Center, as a National Cancer Institute Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP), is a leading enroller of patients in clinical trials in cancer prevention, control, treatment and imaging research. At any one time, about 110 trials are available for eligible patients.

But long before the clinical tests comes that first step in the laboratory.

The nearly 20 Wistar pre- and post-doctoral fellows began their visit with a tour of the cancer center, followed by an informational meeting in which they traded experiences with about a half-dozen clinicians. Three of the visiting scientists shared their research, most involving clinical samples from Christiana Care.

Postdoctoral fellow Curtis Kugel, Ph.D., presented a study focusing on the differences in the immune cells of melanoma patients younger than 50 compared with those of older patients. The results, he said, suggest age could be an important factor when considering immune-based therapies for melanoma.

Kevin Alicea-Torres, a graduate student, is looking at developing treatments that would eradicate certain immune cells in order to improve immunotherapy in cancer patients.

And postdoctoral fellow Ileabett Echevarria Vargas, Ph.D., outlined her search for an effective therapeutic strategy to combat NRAS mutant melanoma, a highly aggressive and resistant tumor that affects about 20 percent of melanoma patients. She described a drug combination that appears to be very promising in the treatment of this aggressive tumor type.

Clinicians’ feedback helps inform how and what the scientists research, said oncologist Gregory Masters, M.D., NCORP principal investigator at the Graham Cancer Center. In turn, their research helps educate clinicians about advances in the field and new opportunities that their research may present.

“Our job as clinicians is to implement all of the knowledge we are given to help patients,” Dr. Masters said. “Collaborations between basic science and clinical work ensure the scientific continuity of the care of our patients.”

Dr. Murphy had one word to describe patients: essential. Validation of the scientists’ work relies on the patient data provided by health care partners like Christiana Care.

“Without patient data, we don’t know how our data is trending,” Dr. Murphy said. “It was eye-opening for us to see what the clinicians are thinking about. And hopefully we gave the clinicians some interesting possibilities as well.”

Since 2011, Wistar and the Graham Cancer Center have been partners in translational research, meaning that preclinical discoveries made at Wistar can be advanced to early phase clinical trials at Graham Caner Center.