The Benefits of Cancer Immunotherapy Clinical Trials

StopeckAlison Stopeck, MD
Chief, Division of Hematology/Oncology
Associate Director, Clinical and Translational Research, Stony Brook Cancer Center
PearlMichael Pearl, MD, FACOG, FACS
Professor, Division of Gynecological Oncology; Vice Chairman, Research and Faculty Development; Director, Women's Cancer Services, Cancer Center; Medical Director, Cancer Center Clinical Trials Office

At Stony Brook Cancer Center, part of our mission is to discover more effective, easier-to-tolerate therapies for patients. One way we do that is with clinical trials that investigate new cancer treatments. Alison Stopeck, MD, medical oncologist, and Associate Director for Clinical and Translational Research at Stony Brook Cancer Center, and Michael Pearl, MD, gynecologic oncologist, and Medical Director, Clinical Trials Operations, Stony Brook Cancer Center, answer questions about clinical trials that explore breakthrough cancer immunotherapy treatments that can change the future of cancer medicine.

What is immunotherapy for cancer?
Immunotherapy is many different types of treatments. The objective of immunotherapies is to activate the body’s immune system — specifically the white blood cells called T cells — to effectively identify and destroy cancer cells.
• Some forms of immunotherapy use drugs called “immune checkpoint inhibitors,” which help improve T cell function and prevent them from being inactivated by cancer cells.
• Another immunotherapy approach, called “personalized cell therapy,” adapts the genetic make-up of immune cells so they can find and attack specific cancers.
• Researchers are also creating vaccines designed to teach the immune system how to recognize and destroy cancer before it can take hold or come back.

What happens in a cancer immunotherapy clinical trial?
Depending on the goals and process of a particular trial, it may be designed to:
• make a person’s immune system better able to recognize and fight cancer
• improve results by combining immunotherapy approaches or supplementing chemotherapy and radiation with immunotherapy 
• train the immune system to recognize and destroy cancers that come back after the first cancer has gone.

What is Stony Brook’s approach to cancer immunotherapy clinical trials?
We’re asking important questions and thinking outside the box to create better, safer therapies that can have the most impact on our patients on Long Island. We’re investigating breakthrough ideas ... novel approaches that will make a real difference.

What types of cancer immunotherapy clinical trials does Stony Brook have?
We have a very active clinical trials program that is testing several different immunotherapies. Here are a few of our current or soon to be initiated cancer immunotherapy clinical trials:
• For patients with triple negative breast cancer that has spread, trials are testing drugs that activate T cells and natural killer (NK) cells and trigger the entire immune system to produce an anti-cancer response.
• Additional trials try to increase the immune response by directly killing tumor cells to make them release antigens, which the immune system will use to fight the cancer.
• Another trial is looking at the effectiveness and feasibility of changing the cellular environment of certain organs to make them less appealing to cancer.

Are there specific benefits for Suffolk and Nassau county residents?
Definitely. At the Cancer Center, part of our mission is to focus on the medical needs specific to Long Islanders. So, it’s only natural that we would conduct immunotherapy trials that are designed to help us discover better ways to diagnose, prevent and treat the cancers that people in our community are getting.

How can a patient learn about a trial that might be right?
The patient’s doctor will discuss any appropriate cancer immunotherapy trials with the patient. We always have a wide range of clinical trials that qualified patients may join, and patients and their families are always welcome to ask about any trials that might be available. Of course, there’s never any obligation to join a trial.

For more information about cancer clinical trials, call (631) 638-1000.