UW Carbone Cancer Center hematologist and myeloma researcher Fotis Asimakopoulos, MD, PhD, was awarded a Leukemia and Lymphoma Society grant to identify patients mostly likely to benefit from a personalized cancer vaccine.

The three-year, $600,000 grant, of which Asimakopoulos is the lead investigator, pairs UW Carbone researchers with those from Medical College of Wisconsin.

“One thing I’m really excited about is that this grant allows us to build off of the myeloma vaccine clinical trial that Natalie Callander, MD, is running here now,” Asimakopoulos said. “The other thing I’m really happy about is that this grant represents a collaboration of the myeloma program of our institution with the myeloma program of the Medical College of Wisconsin.”

UW Carbone is currently one of 15 sites in the country offering the myeloma vaccine trial. In it, patients’ own cancerous cells and a type of immune system cell, dendritic cells, are collected and grown together. The dendritic cells are educated about what proteins and other features are unique to the cancer, then they are given back to the patient. These dendritic cells are specialized at training other immune system cells, the T cells. It is these educated T cells that can then find and kill the cancer cells.

However, even with a personalized therapy, the vaccine is not expected to work for all patients because the ability of T cells to infiltrate the tumor microenvironment differs between patients.

“Immunotherapy is big in cancer treatment right now, but in general only about 20 to 30 percent of cancer patients respond to these therapies,” Asimakopoulos said. “For the vaccine platform, we need good biomarkers to tell us which patients are likely to mount an immunological response.”

Last year, Asimakopoulos’s group identified one such potential biomarker. They found the protein versican, and its cleaved daughter product, versikine, exist in varying levels in the myeloma tumor microenvironment. When versikine levels were high, those cancer-killing T cells were more likely to infiltrate the tumor, leading to better patient responses.

Asimakopoulos will present additional work at the American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting, showing that high versikine levels predict cancer-killing T cell expansion after stem cell transplant, a mainstay of current myeloma therapy.

“With this grant, we will collect samples from patients on trial here or at MCW and measure their versikine and T cells levels,” Asimakopoulos said. “Then we will correlate that data with patient response, both in terms of measuring their T cell response and how they do clinically.”

Moving forward, Asimakopoulos expects the results will help physicians select which patients should receive the vaccine, and which patients should be given different myeloma therapies. And, he is hopeful that continued versican/versikine research will allow even more patients to benefit. His research group is additionally investigating ways to tip the scales in the myeloma microenvironment in favor of versikine, boosting the number of patients who should benefit from immunotherapies.