UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

Video Blog Archive

Pitt and UPMC Launch New Immune Transplant and Therapy Center (ITTC)
February 2018

On February 13, Pitt and UPMC leaders announced plans to establish the new UPMC Immune Transplant and Therapy Center (ITTC), with much of its activity planned within an eight-story innovation hub—all part of a concerted effort to harness the power of the human immune system to treat and cure a wide range of diseases. As part of the collaboration, UPMC has made a $200 million commitment to ITTC, and the University will transform a century-old building at 5000 Baum Boulevard into a world-class space for labs, offices, startup companies, and industry partners.

Backed by decades of pioneering research at Pitt, UPMC’s initial three-year funding commitment for ITTC seeks to dramatically accelerate the pace at which medical teams can utilize new research. This investment will help pinpoint the most promising advances in immunology that are capable of enhancing human health. The center’s work will initially focus on three major areas: cancer, aging and chronic diseases, and transplantation.

Watch the video and visit the ITTC website to learn more.

Hillman Researcher Aims to Target Colorectal Cancer with a Multifaceted Approach
Lan Jian Yu, PhD — January 2018

Colorectal cancer (CRC) is a leading cause of cancer death in the United States and worldwide. While common oncogenic mutations in CRC have been identified, attempts to target these pathways have had limited success.

Jian Yu, PhD, Professor of Pathology and Radiation Oncology, is an expert in colon cancer biology and the signaling mechanisms that promote cancer cell growth and drug resistance. She was recently awarded a new R01 grant from the National Cancer Institute to examine the role of the eIF4E protein in colon cancer initiation and progression. Her preliminary data suggests that eIF4E can influence a cancer cell’s ability to grow despite stressful conditions through metabolic adaptation in which it can become “addicted” to certain nutrients. Targeting this metabolic pathway in concert with other pathways that induce cancer cell death and elicit an immune response could improve outcomes for colon cancer patients. Another related area of investigation in her lab is focused on developing methods to protect normal, healthy intestinal stem cells from cancer treatments, which would further improve therapeutic index and reduce side effects.

Watch the video to learn more about Dr. Yu’s research.

Ovarian Cancer Cells Manipulate Surrounding Normal Cells to Aid Tumor Growth
Lan Coffman, MD, PhD — December 2017

Tumors do not grow in isolation, but are surrounded by a rich microenvironment that contains blood vessels, fibroblasts, immune cells, and a multitude of other components. Cancer cells can influence their microenvironment through extracellular signaling mechanisms to enable and/or enhance their ability to grow and metastasize, such as through the promotion of angiogenesis and immune tolerance.

Lan Coffman, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, is a medical oncologist and researcher who specializes in ovarian cancer. She is particularly interested in understanding how carcinoma-associated mesenchymal stem cells (CA-MSCs) develop within the tumor microenvironment, and how they act to promote ovarian cancer growth. Recent findings in her laboratory demonstrated that cancer cells are able to transform normal mesenchymal stem cells into CA-MSCs through epigenetic alterations.

To learn more, watch Dr. Coffman discuss her research in the video.

Multispectral Tumor Imaging May Guide Precision Immunotherapy
Lisa Butterfield, PhD — November 2017

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While novel immunotherapies are revolutionizing the way some cancers are treated, not all patients will respond to treatment, underlining the need for biomarkers that can predict potential clinical benefit and monitor a patient’s response.

Until recently, immune activity within and surrounding a tumor was typically analyzed through staining of an individual biomarker on a pathological slide, or though cell sorting and analysis of a homogenized tumor sample. New technology available at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center’s Immunologic Monitoring and Cellular Products Laboratory (IMCPL) now enables multispectral automated imaging of intact tumor tissues, allowing for the rapid detection and quantitation of multiple overlapping biomarkers and simultaneous evaluation of their spatial context within the tissue architecture.

Watch Lisa Butterfield, PhD, Professor of Medicine, Surgery and Immunology; Director of the Hillman IMCPL; and President of the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC) describe the importance of this new technology in informing and guiding precision cancer immunotherapy going forward.

Combination Targeted Therapy Improves Survival of Stage III Melanoma Patients
John M. Kirkwood, MD — October 2017

It is estimated that 40% of melanomas contain BRAF mutations that promote cancer cell growth. While previous studies have shown that treatment with the combination of inhibitors targeting BRAF (dabrafenib) and MEK (trametinib) improved survival in patients with advanced, unresectable metastatic BRAF-mutant melanoma, it was not clear whether this combination would have the same effect in an adjuvant setting.

A team led by John M. Kirkwood, MD, Thomas and Sandra Usher Professor of Medicine, Dermatology and Translational Science, and Co-Leader of the Hillman Melanoma Program, conducted a phase III, double-blind, randomized clinical trial in patients with stage III, BRAF-mutated melanoma whose tumors had been surgically removed, and found that the adjuvant use of combination therapy with dabrafenib plus trametinib for 12 months resulted in a 53% lower risk of relapse compared to placebo. At 3 years, the rate of relapse-free survival was 58% in the combination-therapy group and 39% in the placebo group. These results were recently reported in the New England Journal of Medicine and presented at the annual meeting of the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO).

Watch Dr. Kirkwood discuss this study and its potential impact in the video.

Hillman Legacy Lives On at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center
Stanley Marks, MD and Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD — September 2017

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Through Hillman Foundation and Henry L. Hillman Foundation, the late Henry and Elsie Hillman made generous contributions throughout the Pittsburgh region, especially in science and medicine. Their vision of making Pittsburgh a renowned leader in cancer care became a reality in 2002 with a $10 million grant to establish the Hillman Cancer Center, a world-class institution housing both research laboratories and clinical treatment facilities under one roof. Their generous support of the Hillman Fellows for Innovative Cancer Research Program, established in 2004, has helped to attract promising young researchers and to foster the development of novel cancer treatments. The Hillman Fellows Program will continue to grow and flourish, with a newly announced commitment of $30 million from Henry L. Hillman Foundation to support the Program over the next 10 years.

Watch Stanley Marks, MD, Chairman of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, and Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD, Director of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, discuss the Hillman vision and legacy in the video.

Prestigious Federal Contract Supports Drug Pharmacology Studies at Hillman
Jan Beumer, PharmD, PhD, DABT — August 2017

Last August, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center became one of only two academic centers in the nation to secure a competitive contract from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to perform preclinical and clinical pharmacology research critical to the development of new cancer drugs. Led by Jan Beumer, PharmD, PhD, DABT, Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Medicine, and Director of the Hillman Cancer Pharmacokinetics and Pharmacodynamics Facility, this award could bring up to $9.9 million in research projects to Hillman over five years.

Dr. Beumer’s laboratory evaluates the formulation, dosing, pharmacokinetics, efficacy, and toxicity of new drugs prior to their use in phase I (“first-in-human”) clinical trials, to inform routes and doses for drug delivery as well as to predict potential effects of the drug in patients. Through this NCI contract, Dr. Beumer also performs pharmacokinetic analysis in support of clinical trials.

Watch Dr. Beumer discuss his research further in the video, and learn more here and here.

Medicaid Cuts Linked to Later-Stage Cancer Diagnoses
Lindsay Sabik, PhD — July 2017

Medicaid is the largest insurance program in the United States and provides health care coverage for many low-income individuals. Medicaid is administered at the state level, and therefore, the structure and extent of coverage provided in each state varies across the country and is subject to economic policy changes.

Lindsay Sabik, PhD, Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management and member of the Hillman Biobehavioral Oncology Program, studies the impact of government policies on health care. In particular, she is interested in the role of health insurance in facilitating access to care and the impact of changes in insurance on cancer outcomes.

In a study recently published in the journal Cancer, Dr. Sabik and colleagues examined the effects of a Medicaid policy change in Tennessee in 2005. Due to financial difficulties, the Tennessee Medicaid program terminated coverage for nonelderly adults who failed to meet traditional requirements, resulting in the disenrollment of 170,000 patients. Using cancer registry data, the researchers determined that women who were diagnosed with breast cancer after the Medicaid cuts had later-stage disease at diagnosis than those who were diagnosed before the cuts. Furthermore, women living in low-income zip codes were found to have the largest increase in late stage of disease at the time of diagnosis after the disenrollment, suggesting that these women were not able to access screening services that could have facilitated an earlier diagnosis.

Watch Dr. Sabik discuss these findings in the video.

Targeting Regulatory T Cells Could Improve Cancer Immunotherapy
Dario Vignali, PhD — June 2017

Immunotherapy drugs that utilize the immune system to detect and kill cancer cells have been successful against several cancers, yet they are still only effective in approximately 10 to 30 percent of patients with certain tumor types. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center researchers have recently discovered that selectively targeting a group of immune cells called regulatory T cells (Tregs) within a tumor may be a way to boost the immune system’s anti-cancer response.

Dario Vignali, PhD, Leader of the Hillman Cancer Immunology Program, Frank Dixon Chair in Cancer Immunology, and Professor and Vice Chair of Immunology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and his colleagues discovered a few years ago that a surface protein called neuropilin-1 (Nrp1), which is expressed on almost all Tregs that infiltrated mouse tumors, was required to maintain the function, integrity and survival of Tregs within the harsh tumor microenvironment. Thus, Nrp1 on Tregs helps suppress the body’s natural anti-tumor immune response thereby helping the tumor survive. Importantly, blocking or deleting Nrp1 in Tregs in mice only impacted their function in tumors and not in the rest of the body, resulting in tumor eradication without inducing autoimmune or inflammatory disease.

More recent studies led by graduate student Abby Overacre-Delgoffe in Dr. Vignali’s lab, and published in Cell, demonstrated that tumor growth in a genetically modified mouse model in which the Nrp1 gene was deleted in only half the Treg cell population, but not the other half, was dramatically reduced when compared to a normal mouse in which Nrp1 was present in all Tregs. Genomic and cellular analyses revealed that a secreted immune molecule called interferon-gamma (IFNy) prevented the suppressive function of Tregs in the mice, particularly and selectively in the tumor microenvironment.

Using another genetically modified mouse model, they found that the role of IFNy in diminishing Treg function was crucial to the success of immunotherapies targeting the PD1 protein that have been proven to be very effective in patients.

Watch Abby and Dr. Vignali discuss this research further in the video, and read more here.

Novel Gene Editing Approach to Cancer Treatment Shows Promise in Mice
Jian-Hua Luo, MD, PhD — May 2017

A novel gene therapy using CRISPR genome editing technology effectively targets cancer-causing “fusion genes” and improves survival in mouse models of aggressive liver and prostate cancers, UPCI researchers reported in a study published this month in Nature Biotechnology.

Fusion genes, which are often associated with cancer, form when two previously separate genes become joined together and produce an abnormal protein.The UPCI research team, led by Jian-Hua Luo, MD, PhD, Professor of Pathology and Director of the University of Pittsburgh High Throughput Genome Center, used viruses to deliver gene editing tools that cut out the mutated DNA of the fusion gene and replaced it with a gene that leads to death of the cancer cells.

Watch Dr. Luo discuss this research further in the video, and read more here.

New Study Demonstrates Synergistic Anti-Cancer Effects of Oncolytic Virus Combined with Immune Checkpoint Inhibitor
David Bartlett, MD — April 2017

Oncolytic viruses can selectively kill cancer cells and cancer-promoting cells, either directly by binding and infecting them, or indirectly by eliciting a targeted immune response against them. UPCI investigators have been examining the anti-cancer efficacy of an immune-stimulating vaccinia virus, vvDD, and found it to be safe in humans in a phase I clinical trial. However, the overall anti-cancer effects of this treatment were limited, especially in certain tumor types that are not commonly infiltrated by immune cells, such as colorectal cancer.

In recent pre-clinical studies, a research team led by David Bartlett, MD, Bernard Fisher Professor of Surgery, Professor of Clinical and Translational Science, Vice Chairman of Surgical Oncology and Gastrointestinal Services, and Director of the David C. Koch Regional Perfusion Cancer Therapy Center, demonstrated that vvDD treatment caused tumor and immune cells to increase production of the protein PD-L1, which is involved in immune suppression. When the investigators then combined vvDD therapy with a targeted checkpoint inhibitor that blocks PD-L1, they observed a synergistic effect in which over 40% of aggressive colon and ovarian cancers were cured in mice.

Watch Dr. Bartlett discuss this research in the video, and read the journal article in Nature Communications.

Breast Cancer Patient-Led Advocate Group Awards UPCI Researcher with Leadership Grant
Steffi Oesterreich, PhD — March 2017

The Metastatic Breast Cancer Network is a volunteer, patient-led advocacy organization that seeks to address the unique needs and concerns of women and men who are living with metastatic or stage IV breast cancer. One of the ways in which the MBCN makes an impact in this area is by supporting metastatic breast cancer research through contributions made in memory of patients whose lives were cut short by the disease.

Steffi Oesterreich, PhD, Professor of Pharmacology & Chemical Biology, was selected as a 2017 recipient of a $100,000 Metastatic Breast Cancer Research Leadership Award from the MBCN for her important work towards understanding the molecular mechanisms of invasive lobular breast cancer (ILC). This subset accounts for 10 to 15% of all breast cancers, and was recently shown to have unique genomic alterations as well as etiological, biological, and clinical differences from the more common breast cancer subtype, invasive ductal carcinoma. With funds from the award, Dr. Oesterreich plans to examine metastatic ILC tissues to identify unique driver mutations that might be targeted by novel therapies.

A hub for ILC research, the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute held the first International Invasive Lobular Breast Cancer Symposium in September 2016, bringing together researchers, patients, and advocates from all over the world for discourse on ILC research and challenges.

Watch Dr. Oesterreich discuss ILC research and advocacy at UPCI in the video, and learn more here.

UPCI First to Explore Genetic Cancer Test to Offer Safe Thyroid-Preserving Surgery
Linwah Yip, MD — February 2017

Pittsburgh scientists and doctors are embarking on the first-ever clinical trial to determine if a genetic test they pioneered could successfully spare patients with nonaggressive thyroid cancer from complete removal of their thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck that is important to hormone regulation and development. Such thyroid-preserving surgery minimizes surgical complications, and many patients also may avoid taking medication every day to keep thyroid hormone levels in check.

The two-year trial, which is entirely philanthropically funded by individual donors affected by thyroid cancer, will investigate whether the locally-developed molecular genetic test ThyroSeq can correctly differentiate between thyroid cancers most likely to spread and need complete removal of the thyroid gland, and those likely to be far less invasive, warranting a thyroid-preserving surgical approach.

Watch Linwah Yip, MD, Assistant Professor of Surgery and principal investigator of the trial, discuss this study, and learn more here.

Preventive Cancer Vaccines Harness the Immune System to Defend Against Cancer Development
Olivera Finn, PhD — January 2017

While it is commonly known that vaccines can be used to prevent infectious diseases, researchers have also been exploring the use of vaccines for cancer prevention. Olivera Finn, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Immunology and Surgery, has dedicated her career to the study of the human immune system and how it can be harnessed to combat cancer.

While some cancer vaccines focus on attacking cancer cells that have already formed, preventive cancer vaccines aim to destroy pre-malignant cells before they turn into cancer. Dr. Finn and colleagues completed the first ever clinical trial testing a vaccine based on a human tumor antigen, MUC1, in people at high risk for developing colon cancer. The positive results of that study led to a second, larger trial that is currently ongoing.

This past year, Dr. Finn was the recipient of an Outstanding Investigator Award from the National Cancer Institute, providing $6.2 million over seven years to support her research in the immunoprevention and immunosurveillance of human non-viral cancers. She also recently received the American Association of Immunologists Lifetime Achievement Award.

Watch Dr. Finn discuss preventive cancer vaccines in the video.

UPCI Study Underlines the Importance of Routine Skin Cancer Screening
Laura Ferris, MD, PhD — December 2016

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer worldwide. The most deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma, kills about 10,000 Americans per year. Routine screening enables earlier detection of skin lesions, when they are thinner and localized and can be removed by a simple surgical procedure. A large screening study performed at UPCI provided evidence that the benefits of routine screening by primary care physicians outweigh the risks, which may inform future screening guidelines and recommendations.

Watch Laura Ferris, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Dermatology, discuss this work, and read more here.

Key Mechanisms of Cancer, Aging and Inflammation Uncovered
Dr. Patricia Opresko, PhD — November 2016

A team of researchers led by Patricia Opresko, PhD, Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Pitt, and member of the UPCI Molecular and Cellular Cancer Biology Program and Carnegie Mellon University Center for Nucleic Acids Science and Technology, has uncovered new details about the biology of telomeres. These DNA “caps” protect the tips of chromosomes and play key roles in a number of health conditions, including cancer, inflammation and aging. Telomeres are shortened every time a cell divides and therefore become smaller as a person ages. When they become too short, telomeres send a signal to the cell to stop dividing permanently, which impairs the ability of tissues to regenerate and contributes to many aging-related diseases. In contrast, in most cancer cells, levels of the enzyme telomerase, which lengthens telomeres, are elevated, allowing them to divide indefinitely.

A number of studies have shown that oxidative stress—a condition where damaging molecules known as free radicals build up inside cell—accelerates telomere shortening. Free radicals can damage not only the DNA that make up telomeres, but also the DNA building blocks used to extend them. New findings by the research team suggest that the mechanism by which oxidative stress accelerates telomere shortening is by damaging the DNA precursor molecules, not the telomere itself. Mediation of these biological activities may provide new approaches for treating cancer.

Watch Dr. Opresko further discuss their findings in the video, and read the press release here to learn more.

Dr. Stanley Marks Honored with Endowed Chair in His Name to Recruit Cancer Leaders
Dr. Stanley Marks — October 2016

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Stanley Marks, MD, a leading UPMC oncologist and advocate for cancer patients throughout the western Pennsylvania region, was honored this month by UPMC and his medical partners at Oncology Hematology Association (OHA) through the establishment of the Stanley M. Marks – OHA Endowed Chair in Hematology/Oncology Leadership. The permanent endowment will support the recruitment and retention of outstanding leaders in the University of Pittsburgh Division of Hematology/Oncology. It also will help to train professionals devoted to research and improved treatments for patients.

Please watch the video, and click here to learn more.

UPCI-led Studies Presented at ASTRO 2016 Annual Meeting
Dwight Heron, MD, FACRO, FACR — September 2016

The annual meeting of the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) was held in Boston this week, and several UPCI investigators presented their novel research findings related to improving treatment for cancer patients.

Watch Dwight Heron, MD, FACRO, FACR discuss several of these studies, and read more here and here.

‘Starving’ Immune Cell Discovery Points to Cancer Immunotherapy-Boosting Strategies
Greg Delgoffe, PhD — August 2016

The microenvironment that supports a cancerous tumor also starves the immune cells that the body sends in to destroy the cancer, UPCI scientists revealed in a discovery that holds the potential to significantly boost the performance of breakthrough immunotherapy drugs. The UPCI team, led by Greg Delgoffe, PhD, showed that when immune T cells enter the tumor microenvironment, their mitochondria begin to shrink and disappear, indicating that the T cell is out of fuel and can’t properly function to destroy cancer cells. The finding, recently reported in the journal Immunity, opens the door to several potential clinical approaches that could help keep T cells functioning and boost the body’s ability to fight cancer.

Watch Dr. Delgoffe discuss his findings in the video, and read the press release here.

Pennsylvania Cancer Consortium Established to Conduct Phase 2 Clinical Trials under New Award from the National Cancer Institute
Edward Chu, MD — July 2016

UPCI’s Phase 1 clinical trials team, under the leadership of Edward Chu, MD and Jan Beumer, PharmD, PhD was recently awarded a three-year supplement to their UM1 Phase 1 grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to support the conduct of Phase 2 clinical trials of novel anti-cancer agents and/or combination regimens in solid tumors and hematologic malignancies. UPCI is one of only twelve lead academic centers in the US that is part of the NCI Experimental Therapeutics Clinical Trials Network (ETCTN). For this new Phase 2 effort, UPCI has formed a partnership with the Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) at the University of Pennsylvania to establish the Pennsylvania Cancer Consortium (PCC), which represents a collaborative effort between the two largest NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Watch Dr. Chu discuss this new collaboration in this video.

New NCI Grant Funds Collaborative Effort to Improve Early Detection of Pancreatic Cancer
Randall Brand, MD — June 2016

A majority of pancreatic cancer patients (>80%) present with a surgically unresectable primary tumor with distant metastasis at the time of diagnosis due to the lack of associated symptoms and lack of methods for early detection. While the overall 5-year survival rate of pancreatic cancer is low, significantly better outcomes have been reported for early stage, smaller tumors.

Supported by a newly funded grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Randall Brand, MD, Professor of Medicine, Academic Director of the GI Division at UPMC Shadyside, and Director of the GI Malignancy Early Detection, Diagnosis and Prevention Program, and his colleagues both at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Nebraska are developing novel biomarker-based blood tests that may detect pancreatic cancer earlier and distinguish between dangerous and benign pancreatic cysts. Specifically, the research team has conclusively established that overexpression of the glycoprotein mucin is a hallmark of pancreatic cancer, and has identified several biomarkers (MUC5AC and its 2 glycoforms, MUC4 and a glycoform of endorepellin) that hold promise for clinical benefit in pancreatic cancer detection and risk prediction. Watch Dr. Brand discuss these studies in the video.

Big Data Researchers Aim to Build Better Models to Predict Cancer Outcomes
Gregory Cooper, MD, PhD — May 2016

A team of “big data” researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, in collaboration with UPMC and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, are working to develop better methods for integrating, analyzing and modeling large volumes of diverse data on cancer patients. The ultimate goal of this project, which is supported by a $5 million, three-year Commonwealth Universal Research Enhancement (CURE) grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, is to produce more accurate predictions of patient outcomes and to enable clinicians to tailor care for each patient.

Watch Gregory Cooper, MD, PhD, Professor and Vice Chair of Biomedical Informatics and Contact Principal Investigator for this Big Data for Better Health (BD4BH) grant, discuss the ongoing work of their collaborative team, and read the initial press release here.

E-Cigarettes: Helpful or Harmful?
Brian Primack, MD, PhD — April 2016

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Brian Primack, MD, PhD, Professor of Medicine, Pediatrics, and Clinical and Translational Science; Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research on Health and Society; and Director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health, is a top tobacco-use expert whose research examines the effects of certain media and technology exposures on health outcomes. Watch as he discusses the upward trend of e-cigarette use, especially among youth, in the video.

Depressed Patients at Higher Risk for Complications and Hospital Readmission after Complex Cancer Surgery
Carissa Low, PhD — March 2016

Cancer patients who report significant symptoms of depression before undergoing a complex abdominal surgery are at increased risk of postoperative complications and unplanned hospital readmissions, according to a UPCI study published recently in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The study examined the relationship between preoperative symptoms of depression and 30-day complications and readmissions, as well as overall survival for patients undergoing hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy with cytoreductive surgery (HIPEC+CS), a complex surgical procedure during which abdominal tumors are removed and the area is "washed" with high doses of heated chemotherapy.

After statistically adjusting the findings to take into consideration possible effects of demographic and disease-specific risk factors, patients who reported significant symptoms of depression before surgery were more than five times more likely to have a complication or an unplanned hospital readmission within 30 days of hospital discharge.

Watch the study's lead author, Carissa Low, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Psychology and member of UPCI's Biobehavioral Oncology Program, discuss these findings in the video, and read the press release here.

Pittsburgh Penguins Alumni Celebrate the Nicole Meloche Memorial Breast Cancer Fund at the UPCI/MWRI Women's Cancer Research Center — February 2016

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Members of the Pittsburgh Penguins Alumni Association showed their support for breast cancer research as they toured the Women’s Cancer Research Center (WCRC) at Magee-Womens Research Institute (MWRI). The research center is a collaboration between the MWRI and University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI). Nicole Meloche, wife of retired Penguins goalie, scout and coach Gilles Meloche, lost her brave battle with breast cancer in 1993. The Pens Alumni Association established the Nicole Meloche Memorial Breast Cancer Fund at MWRI to raise money to fund metastatic breast cancer research.

Former Pittsburgh Penguins players and their wives, including Gilles and Sophie Meloche, Mario and Nathalie Lemieux, Jay and Alicia Caufield and Randy and Heather Hillier, met with UPCI researchers and clinicians to learn about recent advances that have been made as well as ongoing studies in the field of breast cancer research. Those in attendance included: Steffi Oesterreich, PhD, Director of Education at the WCRC; Adrian Lee, PhD, Director of the WCRC and Co-Leader of the UPCI Breast and Ovarian Cancer Program; Shannon Puhalla, MD, Medical Oncologist; and Adam Brufsky, MD, PhD, Co-Leader of the Magee-Womens Breast Cancer Center and Associate Director for Clinical Investigation at UPCI.

Pediatric BMT and Cellular Therapies Research at UPCI
Paul Szabolcs, MD — January 2016

Clinicians and researchers within the Division of Blood and Marrow Transplantation and Cellular Therapies at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC work alongside those in the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, and have specific expertise in the areas of immunity and immune reconstitution, graft-versus-host disease, tolerance, alloreactivity, and other related topics that affect children with leukemia and other disorders.

Watch Paul Szabolcs, MD, Chief of the Division of Blood and Marrow Transplantation and Cellular Therapies and Professor of Pediatrics, discuss ongoing research endeavors in this field.

UPCI Research Focus: Pediatric Cancers
Linda McAllister-Lucas, MD, PhD — December 2015

UPCI investigators and physician-scientists within the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC are engaged in ground-breaking research, both in the laboratory and in the clinic.

Watch Linda McAllister-Lucas, MD, PhD, Chief of the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology and Professor of Pediatrics, discuss recent successes and ongoing work in this area.

SITC and Cancer Immunotherapy: When Vision Becomes Reality
Lisa Butterfield, PhD — November 2015

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The Society for the Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC) is the world's leading member-driven organization specifically dedicated to professionals working in the field of cancer immunology and immunotherapy. A number of UPCI investigators are active members of this research community, and Lisa Butterfield, PhD, Professor of Medicine, Surgery, and Immunology and Director of UPCI's Immunologic Monitoring and Cellular Products Laboratory, currently serves in a prominent leadership role as SITC's Vice President.

Watch the video to learn more about this team of scientists and the evolution of cancer immunotherapy over the past 30 years.

Large NIH Grant Renewed for Pitt's Center for Medical Countermeasures Against Radiation (CMCR)
Joel S. Greenberger, MD — October 2015

Last month, the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) and Pitt's School of Medicine and Graduate School of Public Health received a five-year, $18 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to continue work developing drugs that could provide protection from radiation in emergencies such as terrorism or reactor meltdowns.

Watch Joel S. Greenberger, MD, Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation Chair and Professor of Radiation Oncology, explain the collaborative research projects and cores supported by this award.

Dr. Thomas Kensler Named Outstanding Investigator by NCI, Awarded $6.3M for Studying How Food Can Lower Cancer Risks
Thomas Kensler, PhD — September 2015

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Thomas Kensler, PhD, Professor of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology and Co-Leader of the UPCI Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Program, was awarded a $6.3 million Outstanding Investigator Award from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). This new, 7-year award acknowledges experienced researchers and provides them with long-term support for their exceptional work.

Dr. Kensler's research focuses on chemoprevention, or how food can be used to lower the risk of developing cancer caused by unavoidable environmental toxins. Research has shown that controlling diet, increasing exercise and quitting smoking can decrease the risk of developing cancer; however, environmental toxins such as fossil fuel combustion products are more difficult to mitigate. Past studies by Dr. Kensler's team in China, where environmental controls are less rigorous, have examined the bioactive molecules in broccoli and how they may help people there detoxify air pollutants. He and his team will focus on a biological pathway known to play a role in detoxification, identify and validate biomarkers of its activity, and examine the molecular consequences of its chronic activation.

Watch Dr. Kensler discuss his work in the video, and read the press release here.

UPCI Academy Scholars Present Research Findings at Annual Poster Session — August 2015

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The 2015 UPCI Academy summer session came to a close on Friday, August 7, as the high school students presented their laboratory findings through oral and poster presentations at the Hillman Cancer Center. Watch several UPCI Academy Scholars describe their studies and results in the video.

Head and Neck Cancer Patients Receive Cutting-Edge Immunotherapies through UPCI Clinical Trials Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD and Julie E. Bauman, MD, MPH — July 2015

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Multi-disciplinary clinicians and researchers at UPCI and UPMC CancerCenter are utilizing the power of the body's immune system to fight tumors of the head and neck. Watch Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD and Julie E. Bauman, MD, MPH discuss one patient's story.

UPCI's Pittsburgh Genome Resource Repository (PGRR) Offers a Powerful Tool for
Cancer Researchers
Rebecca Jacobson, MD, MS and William LaFramboise, PhD — June 2015

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Publically available genomic datasets, such as The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), are highly informative and can be used for numerous research purposes including discovery of new biomarkers, validation of new methods, and development of new therapeutic approaches for precision cancer medicine. The Pittsburgh Genome Resource Repository (PGRR) is an invaluable tool that offers UPCI investigators a mechanism for accessing and analyzing TCGA datasets from a virtualized central location using common tools and platforms, providing data management and computing infrastructure to support biomedical investigation using this “big data.”

The PGRR was developed through a collaboration between experts from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI), the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Personalized Medicine (IPM), the University of Pittsburgh Department of Biomedical Informatics (DBMI), the University of Pittsburgh Center for Simulation and Modeling (SaM), the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC), and UPMC.

Watch Rebecca Jacobson, MD, MS, Professor of Biomedical Informatics and Chief Information Officer of the IPM, and William LaFramboise, PhD, Associate Professor of Pathology and Director of the UPCI Cancer Genomics Facility, discuss the PGRR and several examples of functional applications in cancer research.

Broccoli Sprout Extract Promising for Head and Neck Cancer Prevention
Julie Bauman, MD, MPH — April 2015

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A new study led by UPCI head and neck cancer researchers has shown that broccoli sprout extract protects against oral cancer in mice and proved tolerable in a small group of healthy human volunteers. The promising results of this research, a collaboration between Julie Bauman, MD, MPH and Daniel Johnson, PhD, will be further explored in a human clinical trial, which will recruit participants at high risk for head and neck cancer recurrence later this year. This research is funded through UPCI's Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant in head and neck cancer from the National Cancer Institute.

For more information, read the press release and watch Dr. Bauman discuss these findings.

UPCI Researchers Target Viruses that Cause Cancer
Patrick Moore, MD, MPH, and Yuan Chang, MD — March 2015

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Of the many viruses that infect humans, only seven have been shown to cause cancer to date. Two of these known cancer-causing viruses, Kaposi's sarcoma herpesvirus (KSHV) and Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV), were discovered by Patrick Moore, MD, MPH, and Yuan Chang, MD of the UPCI Cancer Virology Program. The Chang-Moore team developed a new technology for identifying human cancer viruses, called digital transcriptome subtraction, or DTS. Through the discovery of novel cancer viruses, and detailed investigation into their biology and mechanisms of action, the research team aims to develop effective targeted therapies for patients with virus-related cancers.

Watch Drs. Moore and Chang discuss their important work.

Video courtesy of the Carnegie Science Awards

UPCI's Tumor Microenvironment Center (TMC) Bridges Multiple Disciplines to
Study External Influences on Tumors
Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD, FACS and Dario A. Vignali, PhD — February 2015

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Tumors do not grow in isolation, but are influenced by many surrounding factors in their environment. The Tumor Microenvironment Center (TMC) is a collaborative, multi-disciplinary effort that brings together preclinical and clinical scientists with the goal of translating basic knowledge of the mechanisms of interaction between cancer cells and their microenvironment, to enhance and accelerate direct patient-oriented interventions. Included in the microenvironment are the immune, inflammatory, and patient-specific factors that regulate cancer development, progression, and response to anti-cancer treatments. Watch TMC Co-Directors Dr. Robert Ferris (Professor of Otolaryngology, Immunology, and Radiation Oncology; Chief of Head and Neck Surgery; UPMC Chair in Advanced Oncologic Head and Neck Surgery; Co-Leader of the UPCI Cancer Immunology Program; UPCI Associate Director for Translational Research) and Dr. Dario Vignali (Vice Chair and Professor of Immunology; Co-Leader of the UPCI Cancer Immunology Program) discuss the TMC and its goal to provide more personalized and effective treatments for cancer patients.

Epigenetic Priming Shows Promise in Elderly Patients with Acute Myeloid Leukemia
Annie Im, MD — January 2015

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Seventy percent of elderly patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) who were treated with a combination of drugs aimed to make chemotherapy treatments effective and less toxic achieved remission or a slowing of disease progression, in a clinical study led by UPCI's Annie Im, MD, an assistant professor of medicine in Pitt's Division of Hematology/Oncology. The research is important because most elderly patients diagnosed with AML can't tolerate the aggressive chemotherapy needed and tend to have more aggressive disease than younger patients, making prognosis poor.

To learn more, read the press release, and watch Dr. Im discuss the trial.

V Foundation for Cancer Research Supports Novel Head and Neck Cancer Studies at UPCI
Julie Bauman, MD, MPH — December 2014

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The V Foundation for Cancer Research recently recognized University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute researcher Julie Bauman, MD, MPH with an award worth $600,000 over three years, to build on existing scientific knowledge and pioneer new treatments for head and neck cancer. Specifically, Dr. Bauman's team is studying gene mutations in patients whose head and neck cancer was caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) in hopes of finding a more effective, less toxic therapy for this often painful, disfiguring disease.

For more information, read the press release and watch Dr. Bauman discuss her research.

Carnegie Science Leadership in STEM Education Award Received for UPCI Academy
Michael Lotze, MD — December 2014

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Carnegie Science CenterThe UPCI Academy, a laboratory-based training program for high school students created by Michael Lotze, MD in 2009, recently received the Carnegie Science Leadership in STEM Education Award. The Summer Academy aims to foster interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers in research, provide education in content-specific areas, develop research and communication skills, and improve scholars' awareness of strategies and approaches for selecting, applying to, and succeeding in undergraduate and graduate institutions. The program also demonstrates outreach efforts that serve those from under-represented and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Watch Dr. Lotze discuss the importance of training the next generation of cancer scientists.

V Foundation for Cancer Research Recognizes University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Researchers
Kara Bernstein, PhD — November 2014

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The V Foundation for Cancer Research recently recognized University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute researcher Kara Bernstein, PhD, with a V Scholar award, worth $200,000 over two years. This grant is in addition to the three-year, $600,000 grant that was awarded to Julie Bauman, MD, MPH, to build on existing scientific knowledge and pioneer new treatments for head and neck cancer.

Dr. Bernstein will use her award to investigate why people who have mutations in proteins known as RAD51 paralogues are more susceptible to getting cancer – particularly breast and ovarian – and to identify methods for treating their specific cancers.

Watch Dr. Bernstein talk about her research.

Free to Breathe Advocacy Summit Group Visits UPCI Lung Cancer Research Labs — October 2014

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Members of the Free To Breathe Advocacy Summit Group recently toured the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI), including Lung Cancer Program laboratories, to learn more about the approaches to prevention, diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer that UPCI researchers are developing and employing.

Dr. Nancy Davidson (Director, University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute) and Dr. Timothy Burns (Assistant Professor of Medicine and researcher in the UPCI Lung Cancer Program) welcomed about 70 members of the group Free to Breathe, which is an organization dedicated to funding lung cancer research, ensuring patients have access to clinical trials and advocating for the latest treatments for lung cancer patients. The group is made up of doctors, patients, caregivers and other advocates whose goal is to double lung cancer survival by the year 2022.

Targeted Radiation, Drug Therapy Combo Less Toxic for Treatment of Recurrent Head,
Neck Cancers
John Vargo, MD — September 2014

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Physician-researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI)/ UPMC CancerCenter report that patients with a recurrence of head and neck cancer who have previously been given radiation can be treated more quickly, safely, and with less side effects with high doses of Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy (SBRT) in combination with the drug cetuximab.

Between July 2007 and March 2013, doctors treated 48 patients with the combination therapy. All of the patients were able to complete the treatments, which were administered in a span of about two weeks compared to traditional therapies which can take up to nine weeks. Severe toxicity was reported at 12 percent using the combination therapy, compared to upwards of 85 percent using conventional therapies.

The results of this study were presented at the 2014 American Society of Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) annual meeting in San Francisco. Watch John Vargo, MD, a radiation oncology resident at UPCI/ UPMC CancerCenter and one of the lead authors, discuss this study.

View Press Release

Potential Breast Cancer Drug Performs Well in Early Clinical Trials
Shannon Puhalla, MD — July 2014

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A drug previously studied to improve chemotherapy may be effective in treating patients with cancers related to the BRCA 1 or 2 genetic mutations, as well as patients with BRCA-like breast cancers, according to a UPCI clinical trial. The drug, veliparib (ABT-888), is a PARP inhibitor, which means it lowers the resistance of cancer cells to treatment by targeting the polymerase (PARP) family of enzymes responsible for a wide variety of cellular processes in cancer cells, particularly DNA repair.

Watch medical oncologist Shannon Puhalla, MD discuss results of the phase I study, which were presented at the 50th annual American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting.

View Press Release

UPCI Scientists Find Patients With Invasive Lobular Carcinoma May Benefit From Personalized
Drug Therapies
Steffi Oesterreich, PhD and Matthew Sikora, PhD — March 2014

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According to a multidisciplinary team led by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI), invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC), the second-most common type of breast cancer, appears to be a good candidate for a personalized approach to treatment.

Patients with ILC are typically treated with surgery and chemotherapy or hormone therapy, or both. According to Steffi Oesterreich, PhD, Professor of Pharmacology & Chemical Biology, and Director of Education at the Women's Cancer Research Center, a subset of patients with ILC receive less benefit from this treatment than those with ductal carcinoma. Dr. Oesterreich's team recently described a unique program of estrogen receptor-driven gene expression in ILC cells that may play a role in drug resistance.

These findings were recently published in the March 1 edition of Cancer Research.

Watch Dr. Oesterreich and Matthew Sikora, PhD, a postdoctoral associate at UPCI, discuss this study.

Accurately Identifying Neck Tumors Using Robotics Improves Treatment, Survival
Umamaheswar Duvvuri, MD, PhD — October 2013

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Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) recently found that by using robotic surgery done through the mouth to identify the cause of lumps in the neck, physicians can better target more personalized therapies for patients and dramatically improve survival.

In the study, researchers examined 206 head and neck robotic cases performed at UPMC between December 2009 and December 2012. Transoral robotic surgery was performed on 22 patients where there was a lump in the neck with unknown origin, also known as occult primary squamous cell carcinoma. Of these 22 patients, the primary tumor was identified in 19 cases.

In order to determine the impact of identifying the unknown primary tumor on overall survival, researchers matched 69 patients with undiscovered carcinoma of unknown primary (following clinical exam, imaging, and surgical evaluation) and 67 patients in which the primary was discovered at the initial surgical evaluation. They found a difference in overall survival between undiscovered (8.83 years) and discovered (10.19 years).

UPCI researchers presented their findings at the ASTRO annual meeting in Atlanta.

Watch Umamaheswar Duvvuri, MD, PhD, discuss the presentation.

The Importance of Personalizing Cancer Medicine to Maximize Patient Benefit
Dr. Nancy E. Davidson, UPCI and UPMC CancerCenter Director — August 2013

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UPCI Director Dr. Nancy E. Davidson discusses the importance of personalizing cancer medicine to maximize patient benefit.

For more information please visit the Personalizing Cancer Medicine section of the UPCI website.

The Personalized Cancer Medicine Information Management System (PCMIMS) Offers “Big Data” Technology for Research
Adrian V. Lee, PhD, and Rebecca S. Crowley Jacobson, MD, MS — June 2013

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The Personalized Cancer Medicine Information Management System (PCMIMS) is a joint venture of the UPMC CancerCenter, UPCI, and UPMC Enterprise Analytics that will be the foundation for our evolving efforts in developing and delivering personalized cancer care. This vision includes providing an adequate Information Technology (IT) infrastructure which will enable clinicians and researchers to perform cohort discoveries, manage datasets and perform complex analysis all in a secure and traceable environment.

Watch Adrian V. Lee, PhD, and Rebecca S. Crowley Jacobson, MD, MS, discuss the benefits of this data sharing initiative.

Learn more about PCMIMS.

Combination Vaccine Therapy Appears Effective in Advanced Melanoma
Julien Fourcade, PhD, PharmD — April 2013

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Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute recently presented early findings of cancer studies at this year's American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

Watch Julien Fourcade, PhD, PharmD, a research instructor in the laboratory of Hassane Zarour, MD, associate professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, discuss the clinical trial where different immunization strategies for melanoma were tested.

UPCI Researchers Reveal Mechanism to Halt Cancer Cell Growth
Bennett Van Houten, PhD — February 2013

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Watch Bennett Van Houten, PhD, the Richard M. Cyert Professor of Molecular Pharmacology at UPCI, discuss the progress of this study.

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Cancer Specialty Care Centers of UPMC CancerCenter Provide Streamlined and Efficient
Care Using Cutting-Edge Treatments
David Bartlett, MD — January 2013

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Cancer Specialty Care Centers of UPMC CancerCenter provide a seamless, coordinated care approach that focuses on getting patients examined, tested, diagnosed or confirmed, and treated in the quickest time possible.

Specialty Care Centers are organized by disease sites and offer efficient care by a multidisciplinary team of specialists, allowing experts to offer leading cancer treatments and therapies. The centers are for patients who:

  • Have advanced or rare forms of cancer.
  • Have metastatic disease.
  • Seek a second opinion on their diagnosis.
Watch David Bartlett, MD, Director, Cancer Specialty Care Centers, discuss how the centers work.

Interim Findings of the Role of Neoadjuvant Chemotherapy and Stereotactic Body
Radiotherapy for Pancreatic Cancer
Dwight Heron, MD, FACRO — November 2012

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UPCI researchers evaluated the role of neoadjuvant chemotherapy and stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) for borderline resectable and locally-advanced pancreatic cancer, and presented their interim findings at the ASTRO annual meeting in Boston.

Watch Dwight Heron, MD, FACRO, Vice Chairman for Clinical Affairs in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and Director of Radiation Services at UPMC CancerCenter, discuss the presentation.

First-in-Human Trial of a STAT-3 Selective Inhibitor for Cancer Therapy
Jennifer Grandis, MD, FACS — July 2012

There has been evidence that signal transducer and activator of transcription-3 (STAT-3) is increased in cancers, where it drives cell transformation, tumor progression, and resistance to therapy. While STAT-3 is therefore considered a highly attractive therapeutic target, it has long been regarded as "undruggable."

Recently published in the new AACR journal Cancer Discovery, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and collaborators have developed a new strategy to block STAT-3 in cancers. Specifically, they developed a STAT-3 decoy oligonucleotide that effectively decreased levels of STAT-3 target genes in head and neck tumors in a phase 0 trial. Through chemical modification, the team enhanced the stability of this molecule to enable systemic delivery of the drug in patients.

Watch Jennifer Grandis, MD, FACS, Professor of Otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and Leader of the Head and Neck Cancer Program at UPCI, discuss the study and its results.

Flexible Sigmoidoscopy Screening Reduces Colorectal Cancer Incidence and Mortality
Robert Schoen, MD, MPH — July 2012

A new study of the multicenter Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial evaluated the effect of colorectal cancer screening by flexible sigmoidoscopy in comparison with usual care. Results of this large randomized trial indicate that screening with flexible sigmoidoscopy was associated with a 26% reduction in overall colorectal cancer mortality and a 21% reduction in the incidence of colorectal cancer.

Watch Robert Schoen, MD, MPH, Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, and lead author of the study, discuss these results that were recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Chemoprevention Studies Uncover Cancer-Inhibitory Mechanisms of Dietary Constituents
Shivendra Singh, PhD — April 2012

While population-based studies have demonstrated that people who eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of developing cancer, scientists are now beginning to uncover the specific dietary components responsible and their mechanisms of action. Recently, UPCI researchers discovered that the broccoli constituent analogue D,L-sulforaphane (SFN), a promising cancer chemopreventive agent, can induce cell death through a mechanism involving PKCβ-mediated phosphorylation of the p66Shc adaptor protein. In addition, the research team demonstrated that benzyl isothiocynate (BITC), a constituent of edible cruciferous vegetables, can induce breast cancer and colon cancer cell death through a PUMA-dependent mechanism.

These studies were recently published in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry and PLoS One.

Watch Shivendra Singh, PhD, Associate Director of Basic Research at UPCI and Professor of Pharmacology & Chemical Biology at the University of Pittsburgh, discuss his recent findings:

Genomic Analysis of Kidney Cancers Reveal Shared Tumor Type-Specific Copy
Number Variations
William LaFramboise, PhD and Rajiv Dhir, MD — April 2012

In a collaborative research study, investigators at UPCI characterized several diagnostic subtypes of renal cell cancers based on the distribution of copy number variants (CNV) both within and across tumors spanning the entire genome. They found that despite immense genomic heterogeneity, distinct CNV segments were common within each of 4 tumor subclassifications. The subset of shared genomic amplifications or deletions that were identified for each subclassification could provide critical diagnostic or prognostic biomarkers of renal cell cancers.

This study was recently published in the American Journal of Pathology.

Watch William LaFramboise, PhD, Director of the UPCI Cancer Genomics Facility and Associate Professor of Pathology; and Rajiv Dhir, MD, Medical Director of UPCI Tissue and Research Pathology Services and Chief of Pathology at UPMC Shadyside Hospital, discuss their collaborative work.

UPCI Researchers Gain Better Understanding of Radiation-Mitigator Drug
Joel Greenberger, MD — April 2012

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According to a UPCI/University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine study, researchers may have a better way of understanding how a drug used to protect against and mitigate irradiation damage interacts inside human cells. The study involved the successful labeling and tracking of JP4-039, a drug that combats irradiation-induced cell death by assisting the mitochondria.

Results of the study will be presented at the AACR Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Watch Joel Greenberger, MD, Chairman of Radiation Oncology at UPCI and Professor of Radiation Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, discuss the study findings.

View press release