UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

December 2017

As 2017 comes to a close and I reflect on this momentous year at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, I am reminded of the many achievements of my colleagues that deserve to be celebrated, as they influence our future direction and present exciting new opportunities for innovation.

At the heart of all we do as a cancer center are the talented and dedicated researchers, clinicians, and physician-scientists who strive day in and day out not only to provide the best possible care for our patients, but also to expand the boundaries of our knowledge and to unlock new discoveries that will advance the current, standard methods of preventing, detecting, and treating cancer.

This past year, exciting progress has been made by Hillman scientists in the development and analysis of state-of-the-art genetic tests that differentiate benign and slow-growing lesions from more aggressive tumors, informing critical clinical decisions such as whether or not invasive and potentially risky surgery is necessary. One such test, ThyroSeq®, was developed by Yuri Nikiforov, MD, PhD and collaborators, to distinguish cancerous from noncancerous thyroid nodules. Its effectiveness in patients who show indeterminate results during biopsy is currently being examined in a first-of-its-kind clinical trial. Expansion of the initial gene panel provided improved diagnostic benefit (publication forthcoming), resulting in the recent release of Thyroseq® V3. This translational research project is a key component of Hillman’s Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in Head and Neck Cancer. Clinical trials are being led to observe low risk cancers and avoid surgery altogether by Uma Duvvuri, MD, PhD and to reduce the extent of surgery, led by Linwah Yip, MD.

A similar test, PancreaSeq®, developed by Aatur Singhi, MD, PhD and colleagues, has demonstrated sensitivity in predicting whether or not a pancreatic cyst is likely to develop into a life-threatening cancer. New methods for early detection of pancreatic cancer and its precursors are especially needed, as pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of all cancers, due to the late stage at which it is typically discovered. PancreaSeq® offers a useful diagnostic tool that can guide physicians in their treatment decisions.

Great strides are also being made in the field of cancer immunotherapy, which is a particular area of strength at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. Dario Vignali, PhD and his research team uncovered critical cellular signaling mechanisms that enable tumors to escape attack by the immune system. Co-treatment with a drug that targets these pathways could boost response in the many patients who do not yet receive full benefit from cancer immunotherapies.

Also this past year, my colleagues and I have advanced our understanding of why certain head and neck cancer patients respond better than others to the immunotherapy drug nivolumab, which we recently demonstrated improved survival beyond that achieved with standard-of-care, single-agent therapy. We have begun to elucidate how a patient’s immune signature influences their response to nivolumab, which could inform the development of new treatments to enhance the effectiveness of current immunotherapies.

Several of our most senior and accomplished investigators were recognized at the national and international levels in 2017. Patrick Moore, MD, MPH and Yuan Chang, MD received two prestigious honors for their significant contributions to the field of cancer virology: the 2017 Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize and the 2017 Passano Foundation Laureate Award. The husband-and-wife team discovered two of the seven known human viruses that directly cause cancer (Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpes virus/human herpesvirus 8 [KSHV/HHV8] in 1994, and Merkel cell polyomavirus [MCV] in 2008). Their research continues to uncover key molecular mechanisms of viral oncogenesis, and aims to develop and advance methods to diagnose, treat and prevent cancers caused by viruses.

John Kirkwood, MD, a world-renowned leader in melanoma research who developed the first effective, FDA-approved adjuvant immunotherapy for melanoma back in 1996, was inducted into the OncLive® 2017 Giants of Cancer Care®. This honor is bestowed upon innovators who have advanced the field of oncology through their clinical and research contributions. Just last month, Dr. Kirkwood and collaborators published an influential report in the New England Journal of Medicine demonstrating that the adjuvant use of two inhibitors (dabrafenib plus trametinib) significantly reduced the risk of relapse in patients with advanced, resected BRAF-mutated melanoma as compared to control. This finding could have wide implications, as approximately 40% of melanomas contain BRAF mutations that promote cancer cell growth.

Lastly, we cannot discuss significant achievements of 2017 without thanking the many donors who made them possible, including those in our Circle of Hope, and Henry L. Hillman, who passed away in April at the age of 98. The tremendous impact that Henry and his late wife Elsie have made on our cancer center and on each patient who passes through our doors cannot be measured. Their generosity and vision have transformed cancer care in our region and beyond, and we will be forever grateful for their instrumental contributions. Of course, all of our donors hold the key to accelerating our progress toward a future without cancer. Please consider visiting our giving page and making a donation to support cancer research or patient care at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

Wishing happy holidays and a wonderful 2018 for all,

Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD