June 15, 2021

The spirit of innovation: A lasting legacy of developing new cancer treatments

Spirit of Innovation graphic

For decades, the University of Wisconsin has been a leader in developing and testing new methods and therapeutics to treat cancer.

Way back in the 1930s, surgeon Frederic Mohs, MD developed a procedure to treat patients with some forms of skin cancer. That procedure, now known as Mohs Surgery, is still being used today.

UW is also the home of the chemotherapy drug Fluorouracil, or 5-FU. Developed and tested here in the 1950s, 5-FU is still used today to treat certain cancers. So is Tamoxifen, another homegrown therpay widely utilized method of both preventing and treating breast cancer. UW is also the home of Tomotherapy, a specialized form of radiation therapy that targets cancer cells and avoids healthy cells.

Today, that legacy of developing paradigm-shifting cancer therapies continues in new and exciting ways, from creating personalized vaccines made from a patient’s own cells to developing more targeted and effective immunotherapies that can be used as first-line treatments.

It’s all in a day’s work for researchers at the only NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center in the state of Wisconsin.

Many UW Carbone members who engage in some form of drug development research belong to what’s known as the Developmental Therapeutics (DT) program. DT is one of six scientific program areas at UW Carbone, with members seeking to identify more effective therapies and strategies for the treatment of patients with advanced cancer.

In addition, some researchers seek out new molecular “targets” for cancer therapies. That’s important, because new targets open up opportunities for new therapies to be developed. Researchers then translate this work from mouse models into early-stage clinical trials. Success in those early studies ideally leads to future studies and ultimately approval of new drugs by the FDA.

It’s a lot of work. But with nearly 100 members, the DT program is easily the biggest of center’s scientific programs, and well-equipped to meet the demands.

With leadership from Beth Weaver, PhD, Christian Capitini, MD and Dustin Deming, MD, the DT program encourages collaboration across disciplines to come up with new ways of fighting cancer.

“Sometimes, things can develop in silos, so it’s really the cancer center’s job to centralize all of these efforts and then to get people to synergize and work together,” Capitini said.

That can also lead to patients getting access to new treatments much faster.

And while DT researchers continue to explore all avenues of new cancer therapeutics, Capitini says two specific areas of focus in the coming years will be cancer immunotherapy and precision medicine.

Immunotherapy seeks to help the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. Various immunotherapies can augment or suppress the immune system, and come in many different forms. This includes CAR T-cell therapy, an FDA-approved cell therapy to treat certain types of blood cancer, but can also include things like checkpoint inhibitors and cancer vaccines, which researchers continue to study.

In precision medicine, doctors seek to treat a patient’s cancer based on their understanding of the patient’s specific genetic mutation. While there are many possibilities out there, oncologists and researchers continue to learn more about the effectiveness of various treatments across mutations, and which drugs can be given “off-label” to better treat certain cancers.

UW Carbone has been a leader in precision medicine, and is home to the Precision Medicine Molecular Tumor Board (PMMTB), which is co-lead by Deming. The PMMTB allows oncologists and other experts from around the state to discuss and analyze specific cancer patient cancer cases, looking at tumor genotypes and molecular abnormalities in order to recommend patient specific targeted therapies.

For members of the DT program, it’s all about bringing more options – and more hope – to patients. That includes offering more clinical trials. Capitini says the program is invested in increasing clinical trial output at Carbone – both through early-stage, investigator-initiated trials, but also through participation in regional or national phase 2 and phase 3 studies.

“That’s where we can really show impact, which will hopefully lead to more drug approvals,” he said.

Curious about clinical trials? See what’s available today through UW Carbone.