Wei-Zen Wei, Ph.D.
Shirish Gadgeel, M.D.
Michael Tainsky, Ph.D.
Julie Boerner, Ph.D.
Putting an even finer focus on speeding treatments from the laboratory to patient bedside, Karmanos’ six cancer working groups represent a synergistic collaboration between the Institute and School’s many laboratory scientists, cancer experts and clinicians who interact directly with patients. Working groups include those that focus on prostate cancer, lung cancer, ovarian cancer, cancer cell signaling, leukemia and lymphoma, and tumor immunology.
Many significant and productive projects have been developed as a result of working group collaborations. One of the most notable comes from the Tumor Immunology Working Group, co-led by Wei-Zen Wei, Ph.D., professor of Immunology and Microbiology at the School of Medicine and Karmanos.
Dr. Wei and her colleagues developed a vaccine that shows potential for treating HER-2/neu breast cancer, one of the deadliest and hardest to treat. A small phase I clinical trial at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden was completed for that vaccine and the trial showed definite immune response to the vaccine.
In addition to its breast cancer vaccine, the Tumor Immunology Working Group is working with Italian scientists to develop a new hybrid DNA vaccine targeting HER2 molecules, which are present in breast, ovarian, lung and other cancers.
“We would like to expand the effectiveness of immunotherapy and make it work against all cancers, but there are a lot of cancers and a lot of difficult challenges,” Dr. Wei said. “You’re going to see research breaking on different fronts.”
The Lung Cancer Working Group is using grant funding to develop a database containing lung cancer patients’ critical information such as age, gender, smoking history, race and other demographic information, as well as cancer stage, type of cancer and treatment, biopsy materials, blood and saliva. That project is due to start in the next few months.
“Our hope is that the information will help us in the future to define which patients are at risk for lung cancer progression, which patients are at risk for not benefitting from chemotherapy, and what markers in the tumor, blood or saliva correlate with the patient’s disease characteristics and outcome,” said Shirish Gadgeel, M.D., co-leader of the Lung Cancer Working Group. Dr. Gadgeel, a member of the Wayne State University Physician Group, also is leader of the Thoracic Oncology Multidisciplinary Team and associate professor of Internal Medicine.
The Lung Cancer Working Group also is looking to establish a formal lung cancer program, one recognized by the National Cancer Institute that would secure increased funding for research into lung cancer, which kills more people annually than breast, colon, prostate, kidney and liver cancers, and melanoma, combined.
The Ovarian Cancer Working Group is studying the immune response to tumor proteins that could lead to a blood-based ovarian cancer screening test.
“A lot of screenings for cancer are non-specific,” said Michael Tainsky, Ph.D., co-leader of the Ovarian Cancer Working Group and leader of the Molecular Biology & Genetics Program and professor in the Department of Pathology.
“What we need is a way to catch cancer early and we need a way of detection that doesn’t rely on the size of the tumor but rather the host immune system’s response to it,” he added. “We are taking advantage of immune response against tumor proteins for the test.”
Doctors say collaboration among working group members have changed the way they think about developing new treatments and how they treat patients. Many of the working groups include experts in the areas of biology, chemistry, computer science, genetics, autoimmune diseases, cancer imaging, cryotherapy, pathology and molecular biology.
Graduate-level medical students and doctors from other hospitals, including Beaumont, Henry Ford, St. John, Oakwood and Children’s Hospital of Michigan, also participate in the working groups.
“You sometimes have to change the way you think,” Dr. Tainsky said. “There’s a whole new way of how we study the disease of ovarian cancer. For example, there is new information that certain ovarian cancer tumors really arise in the fallopian tubes. We are evaluating how to build this new information into our blood screening test.”
Besides changing perspectives on how to diagnose and treat cancer, doctors also say it’s enlightening to get out of their areas of study and hear about colleagues’ projects.“Part of the reason I like science is it is different every day,” said Julie Boerner, Ph.D., co-leader of the Cancer Cell Signaling Working Group and assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology. “We are always learning new things. We come to every meeting learning something new that we can add to our own research."