New hope for cancer patients; Providence joins international research network formed by Bristol-Myers Squibb

An unprecedented international collaboration promises to take cancer treatment research to a new level and allow substantially more patients at Providence Cancer Institute to take part in clinical trials every year.

The Earle A. Chiles Research Institute at Providence Cancer Institute is one of 10 leading research institutions, and the only U.S. site west of the Mississippi River, selected by Bristol-Myers Squibb Company to form the International Immuno-Oncology Network. The global collaboration will focus on helping the body’s own immune system fight cancer.

“We consider immunotherapy as the fourth method of treatment of patients with cancer,” said Walter J. Urba, M.D., Ph.D., director, Robert W. Franz Cancer Research Center in the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute, Providence Cancer Institute. “People are used to chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, but those all have their limitations.”

Immunotherapy takes advantage of a patient’s own immune system, activating it in a special way that allows it to target and eradicate cancer cells while minimizing damage to normal tissue.

“In the last year there have been two major advances in this area,” said Dr. Urba. “We have a new vaccine to treat patients with prostate cancer and a new antibody to treat patients with malignant melanoma.”

Providence Cancer Institute researchers have been engaged in immunotherapy for 18 years. “We must continue the advancement of this important research, and this network is exactly what is needed,” said Bernie Fox, Ph.D., chief, Laboratory of Molecular and Tumor Immunology, Providence Cancer Institute.

“While chemotherapy, surgery and radiation can have potent anti-cancer effects, having the patient’s immune system recognize cancer cells is necessary for a patient to be cured. This network will provide us with new treatments designed to boost the immune systems’ response to cancer.”

Researchers in the network, including Providence, will have access to many new drugs through Bristol-Myers Squibb for further development and use in clinical trials. Patients will benefit substantially from these state-of-the-art network supported trials.

“These new drugs, many of which have never been used in people before, show great promise, and great promise means seeing lots of big tumors go away,” said Dr. Fox.

Providence anticipates the first of the new network trials to begin by year’s end.

In forming this unique public-private collaboration, Bristol-Myers Squibb sought out institutions that were committed to immuno-oncology, possessing unique expertise and an eagerness to contribute to the group.

In addition to researchers, clinicians, laboratories and patients, Providence Cancer Institute offers internationally recognized expertise in flow cytometry, or cell sorting.

“Flow cytometry allows us to track the development of specific anti-tumor immune responses in patients who are on the network clinical trials,” said Dr. Urba. “We can determine which cells were activated and which were suppressed and that helps us understand how the therapy worked, or didn’t work.”

Providence will provide flow cytometry support for every research institution in the International Immuno-Oncology Network.

Providence Cancer Institute leaders believe their commitment to translational research played a significant part in the invitation from Bristol-Myers Squibb to join the network.

“Translational research is the bench-to-bedside idea of moving a treatment quickly from the lab into the patient,” said Dr. Fox. “Many of us at Providence were trained at the National Cancer Institute and adopted its mandate of rapidly moving ideas from the laboratory to the patient – and we have the experience to know how to deal with and observe toxicities as they occur.”

Rapid translation of well-researched and safe treatments is a goal of the network. The collaboration will allow top researchers around the world to work closely, sharing knowledge and data that will ultimately provide more clinical trials to more patients than ever before.

“This will speed up finding a cure and allow us to provide more effective therapies to patients battling cancer,” said Dr. Fox.

In addition to the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute at Providence Cancer Institute, the members of the International Immuno-Oncology Network include four prestigious East Coast and five well-known international research institutions.

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