A planned study on immunotherapy’s effectiveness in mesothelioma cases got a major cash infusion this week, with the National Cancer Institute agreeing to shell out $2.5 million on the experimental research.

Dr. Bryan Burt, who heads up the Baylor College of Medicine’s Division of General Thoracic Surgery, was awarded the hefty sum in the form of a five-year research grant to study the use of immune checkpoint inhibitors in mesothelioma patients, according to a Feb. 16 release from Baylor.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors are immunotherapy drugs designed to suppress immune checkpoints — molecules in the body that need to be deactivated to trigger the body’s natural immune response. This can sometimes be necessary because certain cancer cells can mimic healthy cells, thereby fooling the immune system into thinking everything is normal.

Risk-Reward

According to Dr. Burt, “emerging clinical data has shown that treatment with ... immune checkpoint inhibitors results in meaningful extension of life in half of patients” with mesothelioma, but that comes with a catch: immune-related side effects.

Dr. Burt’s research will focus on developing a clinical test to determine whether a patient would respond to immune checkpoint inhibitors, thus cutting down on the number of patients exposed to the associated immune-related side effects. Side effects can range from kidney infections to lung inflammation.

“Preliminary data collected retrospectively [from prior mesothelioma cases] showed that the tumors of patients who respond to [immune checkpoint inhibitors ] tend to have a certain immune cell composition, which is quite complex,” Burt said. “We developed a technique to analyze the presence of about 30 different cell types in a very small bit of a tumor sample.”

Multiple Goals

Dr. Burt noted that the end goal is to predict patient outcomes, “whether the tumor will completely or partially shrink or just remain stable for long periods of time.” However, a secondary goal is to better understand neoantigens, which are mutant proteins that form on some cancer cells.

“It will then be time for a clinical trial to conduct a rigorous prospective evaluation in which treatment depends on the results of the test,” Dr. Burt stated in the release.

“Emerging clinical data has shown that treatment with ... immune checkpoint inhibitors results in meaningful extension of life in half of patients.” – Dr. Bryan Burt

The National Cancer Institute’s R37 MERIT five-year award to Dr. Burt allows for an extension of up to two years, which could prove important since the study — which is slated to begin this year — isn’t expected to conclude until 2028.

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