Wilmot, Roswell get additional grants totaling $13.5 million

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With $13.5 million in additional grants, researchers at Wilmot Cancer Institute and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center will continue to explore racial disparities in the use of immunotherapy.

The collaborative clinical research project has been expanded to include more patients. Charles Kamen, a member of Wilmot’s Cancer Prevention and Control research program, is a leader on the project with Garry Morrow, professor of surgery and a member of Wilmot’s executive committee.

They are studying how patients from different races respond to immune checkpoint inhibitors, drugs like Opdivo and Keytruda. These drugs enable T cells, which help the immune system fight disease, to keep at it and not turn off combating cancer cells. They have become the standard treatment for several cancers at both the early and advanced stage.

The DiRECT Cohort project started in 2021, marking the first large, national study of diverse patients treated with immune checkpoint inhibitors. A few Black patients took part in the original trials that tested the efficacy of ICIs, UR officials say. The team now is examining side effects and toxicities among Blacks who take these drugs. Researchers will also look at equitable access to the treatment and care.

So far, more than 1,000 patients have been enrolled. One of the new grants ($3.8 million), Kamen says, extends the clinical research opportunities to 1,200 individuals with advanced lung and kidney cancer and melanoma, who live longer than one year. This group includes eligible subjects in Western New York and in northern California at Kaiser Permanente.

Then, students will be validated in the DiRECT Cohort through the National Community Oncology Research Program. Wilmot is a hub of the clinical research network. Morrow is a co-principal investigator for NCORP.

Kamen and Song Yao M.D., vice chair for clinical research at Roswell, postulate that Black patients may respond favorably to the drugs, a step toward reducing cancer disparities.

The second phase of DiRECT Cohort is funded by more than $9.5 million. Morrow, senior investigator on the project, and the team are collecting data on patients who receive ICIs alone or in combination with other therapies. NCI has also awarded a supplemental grant of $100,000 to survey patients about their use of cannabis. At Wilmot, Luke Peppone,, associate professor of surgery and orthopedics, co-leads this project with Roswell Park, officials say.

As cancer therapies get more sophisticated and effective, differences arise in the care and outcomes of patients. Immunotherapy, which has been credited with reducing cancer deaths, is an effective but expensive treatment.

A 2022 study by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center found that Black and Hispanic patients were significantly less likely to receive immunotherapy compared with white patients with liver cancer. The research concluded that there are significant disparities in early access to immunotherapy because of differential access to experimental therapies and clinical trials.

Racial and ethnic minorities have long been underrepresented in these realms. Regulatory authorities are hoping to change that.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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