When she was in her 30s, Molly Cassidy was handed a death sentence. Traditional treatments failed to fight the aggressive head and neck cancer that was running rampant through her body. Doctors were out of options, until a clinical trial at the University of Arizona Health Sciences offered a glimmer of hope and, eventually, a second chance at life thanks to immunotherapy.
Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses a person's own immune system to fight cancer, while molecular therapies use drugs and other substances to target specific molecules involved in disease progression. In Cassidy’s case, she received a personalized cancer vaccine in combination with an immunotherapy drug that helps the immune system fight certain kinds of cancer, and it worked. A year after the UArizona Cancer Center clinical trial ended, there were no traces of cancer left in her body.
Researchers and physician-scientists are increasingly using precision medicine to develop new cell- and gene-based therapeutical options for diseases, building on the idea that the most effective defense against health issues is the body’s natural immune system. At UArizona Health Sciences, the Center for Advanced Molecular and Immunological Therapies, or CAMI, is being developed to advance knowledge of the immunology of cancers, infectious diseases and autoimmune conditions to develop novel strategies for the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of diseases.
Changing the way doctors treat disease
Immunotherapy is one of the most promising approaches to cancer treatment, as it has the potential to sidestep the effects of therapies that can compromise patients’ long-term health and wellness. But cancer isn’t the only target researchers, including bioengineer Michael Kuhns, PhD, have in their sights.
“Bioengineers solve fundamental problems with technologies that can have many applications,” said Dr. Kuhns, associate professor in the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson and member of the BIO5 Institute. “If you can make something run more efficiently in certain circumstances – for example, make T cells in the immune system more effective at combating a particular disease – then the only limit to immunotherapy is your imagination.”
Dr. Kuhns’ research in the Department of Immunobiology focuses on engineering chimeric antigen receptors, or CARs, a relatively new type of gene therapy. He built a biomimetic five-module chimeric antigen receptor, or 5MCAR, to direct killer T cells to target and destroy autoimmune T cells. When tested in a non-obese diabetic mouse model, the 5MCAR T cells recognized and destroyed pathogenic T cells, effectively preventing Type 1 diabetes.
The Center for Advanced Molecular and Immunological Therapies will focus on developing precision therapies that stimulate or suppress the immune system to fight diseases including cancers, infectious diseases and autoimmune conditions.
“This technology has clear implications for autoimmune disease, but also for cancer,” said Dr. Kuhns, who serves on the 21-member CAMI Advisory Committee. “This technology emerged from basic science, is taking hold in the laboratory and is showing promise to go to the clinic. This is a prime example of what we can do.”
CAMI will build on UArizona Health Sciences’ expertise in basic science, translational medicine and investigator-initiated clinical trials to advance immunotherapies research in four areas: cancer, infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases and real-time immune system monitoring.
Other examples of potential research include identifying biomarkers for response to immunotherapy that may help determine the precise drugs to fight specific cancers in individual patients, understanding individual immune responses to autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or Crohn’s disease, and creating ways to analyze immune health at the cellular level to identify how individuals might respond to a disease and to predict their health outcomes.
Creating a biosciences innovation hub in Phoenix
CAMI will serve as the anchor for an innovation district that aims to differentiate Phoenix from other emerging life sciences hubs, establishing the Phoenix Bioscience Core as a center of cell and gene therapy research, startup activity and corporate engagement. Its location is expected to facilitate strong connections with partners such as Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, the Mayo Clinic and the Translational Genomics Research Institute, among others.
“We expect CAMI to be nothing short of a national biomedical research hub,” said Michael D. Dake, MD, senior vice president for UArizona Health Sciences. “CAMI will be a beacon for people who are involved in this type of research to work, collaborate and engage on the Phoenix Bioscience Core.”
The research will take place in connected buildings that are being designed to include laboratories to support translational research, clinical research space and startup incubator space to create a synergistic environment for commercialization opportunities. Student education will be prioritized in learning spaces dedicated to academic programs that will allow CAMI faculty and researchers to mentor and train the next generation of scientists.
“There is not a field with more explosive growth than immunotherapy. There is rapid growth in research investment and increased formation of academic and industry partnerships around the world,” Dr. Dake said during a Tomorrow is Here Lecture Series presentation in Phoenix. “My hopes are that CAMI is going to provide opportunities to accelerate the development and delivery of revolutionary treatments for the management of cancer, autoimmune and infectious diseases.
“We are going to see diversification of drug classes and different types of combination therapies, delivery mechanisms and monitoring,” he added. “Going forward, I think we’re going to see a wide array of therapies that are going to be vastly different than any past generations ever had. Suffice it to say, in the future, pills and syringes are going to be obsolete.”