$13M Boosts a Growing Immunotherapy Research Project at Wilmot, Roswell Park, Kaiser Permanente

Nov. 17, 2023
gary and charles
Charles Kamen, Ph.D., MPH, and Gary Morrow, Ph.D., MS

A collaborative clinical research project to understand racial disparities in the use of immunotherapy to treat cancer, taking place between UR Medicine’s Wilmot Cancer Institute and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, has earned additional grants totaling $13.5 million and was expanded to include more patients.

Charles Kamen, PhD, a member of Wilmot’s Cancer Prevention and Control research program, is a leader on the joint project, as well as Gary Morrow, PhD, dean’s professor of Surgery and a member of Wilmot’s executive committee. Along with Roswell colleagues, they are studying immune checkpoint inhibitors — beneficial drugs such as nivolumab (Opdivo) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda) — and how people of different races respond to the treatment. The project launched in 2021.

Few Black patients took part in the earliest, original trials that tested the efficacy of immune checkpoint inhibitors. Now, the Wilmot-Roswell team is studying side effects, toxicities to therapy, and outcomes among Black individuals who take modern immune checkpoint inhibitors for their cancer. Researchers are also looking at access to the cutting-edge treatment and equity issues during care. The study is known as the DiRECT Cohort, and has already enrolled more than 1,000 patients.

One of the new grants, totaling $3.8 million, extends the clinical research opportunities to 1,200 individuals with advanced lung and kidney cancer and melanoma, who live longer than one year, Kamen said. This will include eligible patients in western New York at Wilmot and Roswell Park, and in northern California at Kaiser Permanente.

Later, studies will be validated in the DiRECT Cohort through the National Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP), a clinical research network for which Wilmot has served as a hub for many years for the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Morrow is a co-principal investigator for NCORP.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors are believed to be the reason for a decline in cancer deaths during the last several years. Kamen and close collaborator Song Yao, MD, PhD, vice chair for clinical research at Roswell, hypothesize that Black patients may respond very well to the drugs, which would help to reduce cancer disparities.

Morrow is senior investigator on the DiRECT Cohort, the second phase of which is funded by more than $9.5 million. Researchers are collecting data on patients who receive immune checkpoint inhibitors given alone or in combination with other therapies.

Furthermore, a small supplemental award of $100,000 from the NCI will allow researchers to survey patients about their cannabis use. At Wilmot, Luke Peppone, PhD, associate professor of Surgery and Orthopaedics, co-leads this project with Roswell Park.

Kamen is an associate professor of Surgery and Psychiatry at UR, and assistant director for Community Outreach and Engagement at Wilmot.  

Read Roswell Park’s news release here.