Dr. Matthis Stephan: Moving beyond Chemotherapy

Year Funded: 2018

Dr. Matthias Stephan: It’s Time to Outcompete Chemo as a Frontline Therapy

“Chemotherapy can be a relatively easy and inexpensive treatment protocol for physicians,” says Matthias Stephan, MD, PhD, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Seattle, Wash.), “but it’s not very efficient or targeted. Today, we have access to powerful and affordable new technologies that did not exist 10 years ago. It’s time for different scientific disciplines to join forces in using these technologies to beat down difficult cancers. It’s time to outcompete chemo as a frontline therapy.”

With support from the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy (ACGT), a multi-disciplinary team of immunologists, bioengineers and geneticists led by Dr. Stephan is doing just that. Together, they are advancing new pre-clinical strategies that combine principles of bioengineering with gene therapy to improve the effectiveness of therapeutic cancer vaccines.

“Few procedures are available for physicians to rapidly and reliably harness immune responses to fight cancer,” says Dr. Stephan. “Today’s technology can predict cancer proteins with which a patient’s immune system’s T cells might react, but vaccines developed from them commonly fail because everybody’s immune repertoire is different and sometimes patients don’t have enough T cells that are able to recognize cancers or take advantage of vaccines.”

Dr. Stephan’s goal is to boost the effectiveness of therapeutic cancer vaccines by giving patients the cancer-specific T cells they need to make vaccines work. His proposed method includes injecting a robust delivery system of nanoparticles that carry cancer vaccine-specific T-cell receptor genes along with a vaccine designed to trigger the patient’s immune system to fight a patient’s tumor.

Unlike conventional T-cell therapies, Dr. Stephan’s strategy is being designed for broad patient populations – regardless of age or immune status — and although pancreatic and ovarian cancers are the primary target of his current research agenda, the strategy also may apply to other cancers and even to infectious diseases.

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