New Penn Medicine Center: Bringing Immunotherapy Research to Brain Tumor Treatment

caption: Donald O'Rourkecaption: M. Sean GradyPenn Medicine announced the newest Translational Center of Excellence (TCE) in the Abramson Cancer Center, which will be focused on Glioblastoma Multiforme, the most common and lethal form of brain cancer. The team will investigate new immune therapies for glioblastoma and, in particular, design and test new CAR T cell therapies. This involves engineering patients’ T cells (the cells that act on behalf of the immune system) to attack tumor cells. The world’s first gene-based cancer therapy, immunotherapy—or CAR T cell therapy—was pioneered at Penn Medicine, and it became the nation’s first FDA-approved personalized cellular therapy for cancer in August 2017 (Almanac September 12, 2017).

Roughly 15,000 people are diagnosed with glioblastoma each year, with a median survival rate of only 15 months. It has recently been in the news with regard to Senator John McCain, who died 13 months after his glioblastoma diagnosis (Almanac September 11, 2018). Penn Medicine is on the frontlines in the fight against brain tumors like glioblastoma, with the Penn Brain Tumor Center performing the most brain tumor surgeries in Pennsylvania.

“Penn Medicine is at the cutting-edge of research and clinical care for patients with glioblastoma, and our TCE will help accelerate this mission-critical work,” said Donald M. O’Rourke, John Templeton, Jr., MD Associate Professor in Neurosurgery in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “Immunotherapy is a game-changer for aggressive forms of cancer, and Penn is the only institution in the United States researching this kind of combined CAR T and checkpoint inhibitor therapy for glioblastoma right now.”

The TCE, a partnership of the Abramson Cancer Center and the department of neurosurgery, is led by Dr. O’Rourke and brings together multidisciplinary teams across Penn, including investigators from pathology and laboratory medicine, systems pharmacology and translational medicine, medicine, neurosurgery, radiation oncology, and medicine and pathobiology at the School of Veterinary Medicine.

In addition to novel treatment options like immunotherapy, the Abramson Cancer Center and Penn Brain Tumor Center have a full arsenal of medical and surgical approaches for treating glioblastoma, including more traditional methods such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy and surgical resection, as well as new innovations such as TumorGlow and proton therapy.

“The real cutting-edge breakthroughs are coming from immunotherapy,” said M. Sean Grady, chairman of the department of neurosurgery. “Getting to a cure is going to be difficult, there is no way around that. However, in the 32 years I have been a neurosurgeon, this is the first time I’ve thought ‘Yes, we can actually beat brain cancer.’”