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Dougan Discusses Augmenting T-Cell Activity in Pancreatic Cancer

Caroline Seymour
Published: Tuesday, Jan 29, 2019

Stephanie K. Dougan, PhD

Stephanie K. Dougan, PhD

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is rapidly metastatic and has proven to be largely unresponsive to current checkpoint blockade, said Stephanie K. Dougan, PhD. However, ongoing research aimed at priming tumor-specific T cells may lead to increased immunogenicity in pancreatic cancer, as well as other poorly immunogenic malignancies.

, Dougan, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunobiology in the Division of Immunology at Harvard Medical School, and a researcher at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, provided further insight on the study and discussed other research aimed at assessing ways of augmenting T-cell immunity in pancreatic cancer.

OncLive: What are the limitations of the treatment approaches for patients with pancreatic cancer?

Dougan: Pancreatic cancer has a very dismal prognosis. It's rapidly metastatic and has a 5-year survival rate under 10%. It's one of the more recalcitrant cancer types. The current standard of care is combination chemotherapy with either gemcitabine and nab-paclitaxel (Abraxane) or FOLFIRINOX. Neither of these regimens extend life all that much. We've been thinking about how to extend the promise of immunotherapy to a disease that has been refractory to all types of therapy, including current checkpoint blockades.

What do we know about the potential for immunotherapy in pancreatic cancer?

Many immunotherapies have been evaluated in pancreatic cancer; they tend to fail. The existing challenges are numerous. One of the questions that my lab studies is why pancreatic cancer is so difficult [to treat] and how we can overcome that. If we make progress in the “worst of the worst” kind of cancer, [we believe that knowledge] will extend to other tumor types as well as where we see less response.

In terms of immunotherapy, what is the focus of current research efforts?

Many cancer patients don't have tumor-specific T cells that are waiting to attack the tumor. Therefore, we have been thinking about how to get that T-cell response in the first place and how to augment T-cell priming. Figuring out how to prime the T cells to begin with is really the inverse of checkpoint blockade.

What have you found with your research?

We've been looking at augmenting co-stimulation. We have a small molecule that induces noncanonical NF-κB2 signaling. This acts similarly to co-stimulation through TNF family receptors. We've been able to provide this signal to T cells, so that you can augment the priming of T cells of lower affinity, or T cells that see less abundant antigens.

What other research efforts are you involved in?

We've been looking at combination therapies that augment T-cell priming in addition to chemotherapy and therapies that target myeloid cells. We've also been looking at this in other poorly immunogenic cancer types such as breast cancer, so that we can figure out which immunotherapies synergize particularly well and how we can take that to other tumor types.

What are some challenges specific to pancreatic cancer that need to be overcome?

The disease is rapidly metastatic. Even pancreatic cancer patients who come out of resection with clean surgical margins still have a 60% chance of relapse. Even when the tumor is very small, it's already seeding circulating tumor cells in the body that can form micrometastases.
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