5 Ways the University of Virginia Takes the Fight to Cancer

The Emily Couric Cancer Center

(Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The breakthroughs of University of Virginia cancer researchers are multiplying rapidly.

With last summer’s addition of the Focused Ultrasound Cancer Immunotherapy Center, the world’s first such center, and the announced Paul and Diane Manning Institute of Biotechnology, UVA is picking up the pace against the leading cause of death worldwide.

The research is coordinated by the UVA Cancer Center, which is one of just 53 Comprehensive Cancer Centers designated by the National Cancer Institute, and the only one in Virginia. The elite designation recognizes centers that meet rigorous standards for innovative research and leading-edge clinical trials.

Here are five groundbreaking areas where UVA is currently advancing cancer science.

Shrinking Deadly Tumors

In July, UVA Health reported finding new vulnerabilities in solid tumors, particularly those found in the brain, that may respond to advanced immunotherapies.

The research is focusing on two kinds of tumors – called glioblastoma and diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, sometimes referred to as DIPG – that lack effective treatments. On average, less than 7% of patients with glioblastoma survive five years, and, for children, life expectancy with DIPG is only nine months after diagnosis.

The work identifies specific targets on glioblastoma and DIPG cells that the immunotherapy could exploit. When tested in mice, the approach was very effective. The tumors shrank or disappeared and the weaponized immune cells proved long-lasting. The approach also avoided side effects that have previously hampered its use in people. (Read more)

Precision Strikes on Cancer Cells

In regard to such challenging tumors, UVA is on the leading edge of new focused ultrasound and CAR T-cell therapy approaches.

Dr. Daniel “Trey” Lee and Dr. Lawrence G. Lum and colleagues are developing elegant treatment alternatives that empower our immune systems to recognize and destroy cancer. The immunotherapy works by weaponizing immune cells to perform what are, in essence, highly precise drone strikes on cancer cells. (Read more)

Investigating How Changes in the Gut Affect Cancer

In September, researchers revealed that changes in the gut can cause breast cancer to spread, knowledge that may lead to inhibiting the cancer.

The gut microbiome – the collection of microbes that naturally live inside us – can be disrupted by poor diet, long-term antibiotic use, obesity and other factors. When this happens, the ailing microbiome reprograms important immune cells in healthy breast tissue, called mast cells, to facilitate cancer’s spread, UVA Health’s new discovery shows.

The finding could help scientists develop ways to keep breast cancer from metastasizing, or spreading to other parts of the body. When that happens, it is often deadly: Only 29% of women with metastatic breast cancer survive five years. For men with metastatic breast cancer, that figure is just 22%. (Read more)

Pinpointing the Cause of Childhood Cancers

UVA Health last summer pinpointed a gene responsible for two forms of childhood cancer.

The discovery may open the door to the first targeted treatments for two types of rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the soft tissue that primarily strikes young children. The gene may also play an important role in other cancers that form in muscle, fat, nerves and other connective tissues in both children and adults, the research suggests.

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Hui Li, a researcher with the UVA School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology and the UVA Cancer Center, identified the gene AVIL as responsible.

Li and his team discovered in 2020 that AVIL is the gene also responsible for glioblastoma, the most lethal form of brain cancer. Less than 7% of patients with glioblastoma survive five years after diagnosis. (Read more)

Using Algorithms to Improve Treatment

In October, the health system discussed its new algorithm that can help identify if a patient will benefit from a powerful type of cancer drug.

Kinase inhibitors are the most common cancer drugs approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration. They can be hugely effective for the right patients, but they don’t work for everyone. UVA’s algorithm offers a new and better way to pinpoint patients who will benefit, an important step forward in precision medicine tailored to the individual.

In testing their new algorithm, the researchers found that it worked reliably across different tissue types, suggesting it is useful for many types of cancer. (Read more)

Editor’s note: UVA Health’s Josh Barney provided the original reporting for these research breakthroughs.

Media Contact

Eric Williamson

University News Senior Associate University Communications