Molecular Biology and Immunology Discoveries Drive Novel Strategies for Lymphoma

Catherine M. Diefenbach, MD
Published: Sunday, Mar 22, 2015
NYU Cancer InstituteCatherine M. Diefenbach, MD
Catherine M.
Diefenbach, MD
Assistant Professor, Division of Hematology and Medical Oncology
Department of Medicine Member
Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Medical CenterDr. Catherine M. Diefenbach
Lymphomas are a heterogeneous and complex group of malignancies, with more than 67 distinct subtypes. The American Cancer Society estimates that lymphoma will account for nearly 72,000 new cases of cancer this year and, even more alarming, 20,000 deaths in 2015 alone. Fortunately, recent developments in research activity have unveiled new findings on the biology of lymphomas, and the complex relationship between the lymphoma cell and the cells that surround it. These biologic insights point to distinct mechanisms that will aid in better stratifying patients for individualized therapies, and provide increased options for patients with advanced disease, where treatments remain limited.

Research and development are proliferating at such an accelerated pace that the promise of biomarker-driven targeted therapies is moving closer toward reality. It is bound to proceed at an even more accelerated pace with an infusion of dollars from the new Precision Medicine Initiative, announced by President Obama in his State of the Union address in January. It is aimed at delivering the right treatment at the right time to the right individual. This will definitely bolster our work in lymphoma, and enhance research and development into drug resistance, genomic heterogeneity of tumors, the monitoring of responses and tumor recurrence, and the use of drug combinations.

Our lymphoma research group at the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Medical Center is actively involved in drug development and biomarker research, focusing primarily on patients with advanced disease who are no longer responding to standard treatments. We have a stellar group of researchers in the fields of clinical research, immunotherapy, radioimmunotherapy, radiation therapy, and small-molecule drug development.

Ongoing Clinical Trials

My role includes serving as the national principal investigator of a phase I Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group study (NCT01896999), which is the first trial in Hodgkin lymphoma that combines immune stimulation with direct tumor targeting. Patients with relapsed or refractory Hodgkin lymphoma are eligible for enrollment. The trial combines direct tumor targeting with the anti-CD30 antibody–drug conjugate brentuximab vedotin, and the immune-activating agent ipilimumab, an anti-CTLA-4 agent. We hypothesize that in Hodgkin lymphoma, a tumor that is to a large extent dependent on its microenvironment, this combination strategy may result in increased tumor cell elimination by the immune system, and an increased clinical response. Recruitment for this trial at NYU Langone and its Perlmutter Cancer Center is now open.

I am also the lead principal investigator on a second phase I treatment study for patients with relapsed and refractory low-grade mantle cell and low-grade B-cell lymphoma (NCT01695941). This trial, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Therapeutics Evaluation Program, is testing the combination of the novel aurora kinase inhibitor alisertib with the proteasome inhibitor bortezomib, and the anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody rituximab. It is founded on the hypothesis that these drugs may work better in combination than they work by themselves. We will investigate whether giving alisertib and bortezomib together with rituximab may be a better treatment for relapsed or refractory mantle cell lymphoma or B-cell low-grade non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Recruitment for the trial at NYU Langone is now open as well.

Another treatment trial under way is for patients with advanced mycosis fungoides. This trial, at NYU Langone and other sites, is designed to find out whether a novel treatment regimen, consisting of focal lesional radiation with or without a second immune stimulant, can induce a response to the therapy out of the radiation field in patients receiving histone deactylase inhibitor therapy (NCT02061449). The overall goal is to augment both immune activation and the response to that therapy.


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