Grants could help improve cancer treatments


Two scientists at the Van Andel Research Institute each has been awarded one of 10 grants — totaling $5.4 million — to fund clinical trials for epigenetic drugs. 

The grants are awarded through a collaborative medical research organization called Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C), funded by the pharmaceutical company Merck, the biotechnology company Genentech and the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb. Recipients of the 10 grants are members of the SU2C Dream Team, each team researching different types of cancer treatments. 

A $2.9-million grant over three years, funded by Genentech, was awarded to Peter Jones, Ph.D., D.Sc., chief scientific officer of Van Andel Research Institute, co-leader of the VARI-SU2C Epigenetics Dream Team and co-principal investigator of the bladder cancer trial. 

A $2.5-million grant over three years, funded by Merck, was awarded to Stephen Baylin, M.D., director’s scholar at VARI, co-leader of the VARI-SU2C Epigenetics Dream Team and co-leader of the lung cancer trial.

It is uncommon for one institution to receive two of these 10 grants, and Jones believes that speaks to the quality of work at the Van Andel Research Institute. 

“What we do very well here is we pull the best talent in the world, literally, together here in Grand Rapids,” Jones said. “Then we disseminate the ideas to do these trials as a joint effort.”

The clinical trials will support two studies to learn whether epigenetic and immunotherapy combination therapies are an effective treatment for lung and bladder cancers. 

Immunotherapy — a technique of fighting cancer that pits the immune system against the disease — can be effective, but the problem many patients face is the cancer cells oftentimes hide from the immune system. Preclinical trials have suggested adding epigenetic drugs to the mix can “unmask” the cancer cells and allow the immune system to destroy them. 

Jones said only about 2 percent of a person’s DNA is actual genetic coding and about 10 percent of the body’s DNA consists of hidden viruses. The epigenetic drugs should force those viruses to show themselves, which would then cause an immune system reaction because it would think the cells have a virus. 

Jones likened the genome to a Trojan horse full of soldiers. The soldiers — viruses — are hidden behind the door until it is opened. The act of opening the door would be the epigenetic drugs taking effect.

About 85 percent of bladder cancer patients develop a resistance to immunotherapy; the trial is the first of its kind and will investigate whether epigenetic drugs can reverse that resistance. The lung cancer trial will explore whether epigenetic drugs can improve response to immunotherapies.

“It’s really important,” he said. “If we get it right, we could increase the efficiency of these treatments by a lot.

“My dream is to double the efficiency of the treatment.”

The lung cancer trial is enrolling patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, with other sites expected to open in the coming months. The bladder cancer trial is slated to open later this fall.

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