Pioneering Cancer Immunotherapy at Providence
In this story:
- Providence is now able to look at a patient’s genetic profile for insight into which cancer therapies may be most effective for that individual.
- Philanthropy is fueling Providence’s research around preventing cancer with vaccines, and how to combine immunotherapy with radiation therapy, chemotherapy and genetically targeted agents.
- Philanthropic gifts also help Providence recruit talented scientists and physicians who do the important work of harnessing the power of immunotherapy to cure cancer.
Dr. Walter J. Urba, M.D., Ph.D., has seen his share of advancements in cancer treatments over his 40-year career in oncology. As a pioneer in immunology, he led the first immunotherapy global clinical trial for patients with melanoma, as well as many more advances in cancer treatment. Since 1993, he has headed Providence Cancer Institute’s Earle A. Chiles Research Institute and Robert W. Franz Cancer Center for Providence in Portland, Oregon.
Dr. Urba loves his work because “oncology is a field in constant flux, where new treatments are discovered all the time. We all have to work hard to keep up-to-date, but it’s also an opportunity to provide our patients with the latest and best therapies available through research.”
Philanthropic gifts are crucial for advancing the work of Dr. Urba and his colleagues at Providence Cancer Institute. “It’s expensive to run experiments and clinical trials, and to purchase cutting-edge laboratory equipment that can improve cancer treatments, but they are of critical importance to the work we do,” he says.
The Future of Cancer Treatment
“The practice of oncology is being transformed as a result of our understanding that the immune system can recognize and destroy cancer cells,” says Dr. Urba. “The foundations of cancer treatment are surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy—and today, we consider immunotherapy the fourth modality of treatment.”
A major goal of cancer research at Providence is an immunotherapy treatment called adoptive cellular therapy, which takes immune cells (often T-cells) from a patient, and after stimulation and/or modification outside the body to make them more effective killers of cancer cells, injects them back into the patient. This treatment is perfect for patients whose immune systems can’t fight their tumors. “Not every patient’s genetic makeup allows for existing drugs to kickstart an immune response,” says Dr. Urba. “It’s like having the brakes turned on.” But adoptive cellular therapy and certain drugs can free these impediments and reactivate a patient’s immune response to fight the cancer.
This type of personalized treatment is often called precision medicine, or precision oncology, and it also includes “genomic sequencing, which may reveal diagnostic or therapeutic biomarkers to aid in clinical decision-making. In a matter of days, clinicians can receive a report of a patient’s genetic profile that provides insight into which cancer therapies may be most effective for that individual,” says Dr. Urba. Providence is also investigating ways to prevent cancer with vaccines, and how to combine immunotherapy with other treatment modalities like radiation therapy, chemotherapy and genetically targeted agents.
“It’s our integrated approach to clinical excellence that sets Providence apart.”
–Walter J. Urba, M.D., Ph.D., Director of Cancer Research at Robert W. Franz Cancer Research Center
Through research and early phase clinical trials, Providence Cancer Institute aims to give patients tomorrow’s treatments today. “Providence is an example of where philanthropic contributions are making a real difference for patients with cancer,” says Dr. Urba. “Because of our clinical trials program, Providence patients often get access to drugs that end up being FDA-approved because of their efficacy, and they get access to them years before FDA approval.”
Providence’s many clinical trials across the system are building a centralized research network—also with the support of donors—that will allow Providence to scale access to personalized treatments to all patients over time.
Providence Leadership in Clinical Excellence
Philanthropic gifts also help Providence recruit talented scientists and physicians who do the important work of harnessing the power of immunotherapy to cure cancer. Like most endeavors, enlisting exceptionally qualified doctors, scientists and researchers often leads to the best results.
Dr. Urba also credits Providence leadership for having the foresight to evolve from cancer programs that depended on a range of generally trained medical, radiation and surgical oncologists to building a program of highly trained disease-specific practitioners. “Over the years we’ve been able to get patients the best surgeon specifically for their type of cancer—the innovative thinkers pursuing certain diseases and new approaches to care,” he says.
Despite successes that have occurred in the field of immuno-oncology, there is still much to do and learn. Dr. Urba believes that “as we understand tumors better and the state of a patient’s immune system at the time they are diagnosed, we can then predict exactly what combination of drugs will give them the best chance of a cure. I think that's the future.”
Philanthropy has been, and continues to be, essential to advancing cancer science and medicine. “The generosity of donors inspires and propels us toward a future free of cancer,” says Dr. Urba.