National Cancer Institute scientist joins Providence, honored nationally for unique and promising Immunotherapy research

May 04, 2017

EricTranA new job. Moving across country. Having a research paper published by the preeminent medical journal in the nation. Being named one of the 15 most promising young cancer researchers in the nation. It has been a busy and exciting start to 2017 for immunotherapy researcher Eric Tran, Ph.D., and it could make a great difference in the lives of people fighting cancer.

The National Cancer Institute-trained scientist was welcomed to the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute faculty, at Providence Cancer Institute, earlier this year, at the very time his immunotherapy research, entitled “T-Cell Transfer Therapy Targeting Mutant KRAS in Cancer,” was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. And, he just learned he has been recognized as one of 15 most promising young researchers in the nation for 2017 by the Sidney Kimmel Foundation for Cancer Research.

The Kimmel Scholar Award recognizes researchers early in their careers, who demonstrate great promise and innovation in their work. Tran received a $200,000 two-year grant to support his research.

“I am deeply honored and grateful to the Kimmel Foundation for this award,” said Tran.

The grant will allow Tran to further his work with T-cell transfer immunotherapy, also known as adoptive T-cell therapy. This involves obtaining T cells from a patient, growing those T cells to large numbers in the lab, and then giving them back to the patient. T cells are used because they are capable of recognizing and destroying cancer cells. The idea behind this therapy is quite simple – it is to generate a large army of tumor-reactive T cells from the patient and use them to attack the tumors.

An example of the promise of adoptive T-cell therapy is seen in patients with metastatic melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Studies have shown that the infusion of a large number of T cells derived from the patient’s own tumor can mediate durable regression of all disease in about 20 to 25 percent of the patients, meaning those patients, some of whom were treated over a decade ago, are still cancer free.

“The fact that adoptive T-cell therapy can cause dramatic tumor regression in some patients with melanoma is remarkable and promising,” said Tran. “However, this type of therapy is not as effective in patients with other solid cancers, such as colon cancer, so we clearly have to do better.” Tran added, “By using cutting edge technologies to study the tumors and T cells of these patients, we have a much deeper understanding of why the treatments worked in some patients, but not in other. These findings have given us ideas on how to improve the next generation of T-cell therapies for patients with cancer.”

Tran’s major goal in his lab, the Antitumor T-cell Response Laboratory, is to develop more effective T-cell based immunotherapies to treat patients with metastatic cancers – which are cancers that have spread throughout the body. Metastatic cancers account for approximately 90 percent of cancer-related deaths in the United States.

His strategy involves a biopsy of the tumor and isolating T cells from the tumor and/or blood. The tumor cells are analyzed on a molecular level, to identify tumor-specific molecules – such as mutations – that can be targeted by T cells. Using the information about unique mutations, the tumor-specific T cells can be grown to large numbers and then given back to the patient.

Tran will make use of the Human Applications Laboratory, a core laboratory facility of the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute, which is fully capable of generating personalized T-cell products for the treatment of patients with cancer. He hopes to start testing this next generation of adoptive T-cell therapy in clinical trials at Providence Cancer Institute in about two years.

“We are very excited to have recruited a scientist of Dr. Tran’s caliber from the Surgery Branch of the NCI, NIH,” said Walter J. Urba, M.D., Ph.D., oncologist and director, Robert W. Franz Cancer Research Center in the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute at Providence. “His particular research focus aligns with our center’s long-standing interests and we look forward to the advancements he will make in developing new strategies to improve the treatment for patients fighting cancer.”

“Providence gave me an outstanding opportunity and support to develop my adoptive T-cell therapy program,” Tran said. “The research and clinical teams here have a highly diverse set of immunotherapy expertise that will complement and synergize with my program. I’m very excited and honored to work with all of the talented and motivated individuals at Providence who have the common goal of eradicating cancer.”

Providence Cancer Institute researchers, including Tran, work very closely with oncologists and surgeons serving the thousands of cancer patients who seek care at Providence. The Earle A. Chiles Research Institute at Providence is known for its translational research, which is also referred to as “bench to bedside” – meaning the science is moved quickly from conception to patient trials.

Tran joins a Providence Cancer Institute research team of nearly 100, led by Dr. Urba, which is focused on, and internationally known for, advancing immunotherapy research and treatments.

Tran received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Victoria, Canada. He then spent the next six years as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Research Fellow at the National Institutes of Health, mentored by Steven A. Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D., a pioneer and international leader in cancer immunotherapy.

He has first authored and co-authored 21 publications to date, in such journals as New England Journal of Medicine, Science and Nature Immunology. Tran is a frequent presenter at international cancer research conferences.