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A Science-Driven Partnership – Collaborating for Cancer Cures

A Q&A with Vanessa Lucey of the Cancer Research Institute

The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy (PICI) shares many of the same goals as the Cancer Research Institute (CRI). So early in our inception, we combined our expertise and resources to conduct clinical studies to answer some of the most difficult questions in immunotherapy research.

We talked with Vanessa Lucey, PhD, MBA, director of CRI’s Venture Fund and Anna-Maria Kellen Clinical Accelerator, to learn more about her background, her role and the partnership between PICI and CRI.

What is your background in cancer immunotherapy?

I describe myself as a mouse immunologist now working in clinical research. I’m a trained immunologist and started my career as a research technician studying bone marrow transplantation. I worked in the lab of Marcel van den Brink, MD, PhD, who is a PICI co-director at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and a CRI Clinical Accelerator investigator.

I fell in love with research after seeing some of the first survival curves of melanoma patients being treated with ipilimumab that Jim Allison, PhD, PICI director at MD Anderson Cancer Center and director of CRI’s Scientific Advisory Council, presented at a conference. This was a pivotal moment for me. I remember thinking, ‘wow, PhDs can work in clinical research.’

After that I got a PhD in immunology in the context of T-cell activation and T-cell autophagy at Albert Einstein School of Medicine. While completing my postdoctoral fellowship at New York University, I also obtained a business degree from Mercy College School of Business because I realized I wanted to work beyond the bench.

In 2014, I joined CRI as senior research analyst.

What is your role at CRI?

I lead the Anna-Maria Kellen Clinical Accelerator program, which at a high-level means I oversee and coordinate our clinical trials activities. I work with our academic investigators and nonprofit partners like PICI to source clinical trial ideas. Once we the select the most promising ideas, I work with biotech and large pharma companies to gain access to the drugs we need to conduct the trials.

I also oversee CRI’s Immuno-Oncology Landscape database, which I started when I first joined CRI. Today the database is updated and analyzed by CRI Data Scientist Jia Xin “Annie” Yu, who works closely with PICI’s Informatics team. The IO Landscape tracks all the drugs, companies and clinical trials in the immunotherapy space. The initial goal was to ensure we were maximizing our philanthropic dollars by identifying the white space in the field and working on targets and trials that were not duplicative of pharma’s efforts, but synergistic. This has evolved over the past few years into a much more sophisticated database to scientifically and academically curate all the drugs in immunotherapy.

We also publish snapshots of the landscape for all researchers in the field to accelerate the science. For example, if our investigators are interested in a particular pathway, we can look up all the companies that are targeting that pathway and then diligently identify which agent might be the best and most well suited for our clinical trials. We want to ensure that we have a strong biological rationale and clinical hypothesis for our studies, and also that we are using the best IO drugs in the field for our trials.

Why did CRI want to partner with PICI?

In 2012, CRI established the Anna-Maria Kellen Clinical Accelerator and a philanthropic venture fund to support it. The idea was to devote funding exclusively to clinical trials since they are quite expensive. We raised money from generous donors allowing us to fund three to five clinical trials a year, sourced by our scientific community. We partner with nonprofits and companies using an evergreen philanthropic model.

Since PICI has an overlapping mission, scientists and leadership, it made sense that what we could do together would be better than what we could do alone. And PICI had the clinical development, informatics, research operations and translational medicine expertise that we look for in nonprofit partners.

“Cancer is a really complex problem – no one organization or company can solve it alone. It’s going to take collaborations like the one we have forged with PICI.”

And we hope this is a good model for others who are looking to advance medical science in cancer and beyond.

What do PICI and CRI want to accomplish together?

Our goal is to promote immunotherapy to treat and eventually cure all types of cancer. We are both very scientifically and research-oriented organizations. We want to launch deep, science-rich clinical trials in cancer indications where immunotherapy hasn’t been successful, including pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer and cold tumors.

We work together to identify the most promising clinical trial and research study ideas with our investigators (many are part of both PICI and CRI), develop the drug selection committees, build out the studies where PICI is the sponsor and IND holder, and partner with the biotech and pharma companies to gain access to the drugs.

The idea is to continue to build on the learnings from the trials and develop better combination therapies for patients in the future. This collaboration will help advance lifesaving medicines for more patients more quickly.

What makes the partnership effective?

Our partnership is effective because of the level of transparency and camaraderie between our organizations. Since we have so much overlap, we are starting from the same place and reaching the same goals together. Two organizations leveraging capital, expertise and intellectual capabilities are more effective than two organizations working on their own.

“Also, both organizations are focused on reducing inefficiencies and duplicative efforts. We tackle difficult-to-treat tumor types that often don’t get as much research attention. As nonprofits, devoting our resources to these areas meets our shared missions.”

Lastly, PICI’s in-house informatics, research operations and translational medicine teams allow us to take the clinical findings a step further. Having a single source with all the molecular and clinical data integrated into one single platform, where we can look at biomarkers across multiple trials, is invaluable. It gives us answers into why treatments work for some patients and not others. Then, we use these insights to inform future trials and ensure everything we do is driven by science. We don’t believe that there is a “negative” study. We learn from all the clinical trials independent of the clinical outcomes.

As we look forward, what project or outcome are you most excited about?

In a short time, the powerful collaboration between CRI and PICI has demonstrated its unique ability to produce impactful results.

I’m excited for us to translate up-and-coming research from academic labs that are developing novel strategies to improve cellular therapy for solid tumors. We plan to use cellular therapy across our platform studies, which could include pancreatic, prostate and brain cancers. This is a promising area of clinical research and a source of the great innovation that’s to come for immuno-oncology.

June is Cancer Immunotherapy Month. Learn more about the lifesaving potential of immunotherapy for all types of cancer through CRI’s educational programs and social events