UF brain cancer investigators lead bold initiative with top peers to advance new treatments

Dr. Mitchell and the UF Brain Tumor Immunotherapy team
Led by Duane Mitchell, M.D., Ph.D., the UF Brain Tumor Immunotherapy team is part of a 12-university collaboration to extend survival rates for patients with malignant brain tumors.

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For more information, please contact Marilee Griffin, margri@ufl.edu or 352-273-7891.

GAINESVILLE — The goal: achieving transformative improvement in long-term survival within the next decade for patients diagnosed with malignant brain tumors. To get there, University of Florida Health brain cancer experts are launching an exciting new venture with top peer institutions from across the nation and Canada.

The new UF Health-led collaboration, called The Legacy Program in Brain Cancer, will officially launch in February 2019 and bring together worldwide neuro-oncology experts and a community of empowered individuals who have been affected by brain cancer. Duane Mitchell, M.D., Ph.D., co-director of the Preston A. Wells, Jr. Center for Brain Tumor Therapy at the University of Florida, will publicly announce the initiative Sept. 21 during the Biden Cancer Summit in Washington, D.C. Mitchell’s talk can be viewed live at 3:35 p.m. by visiting www.bidencancer.org/summit.

The focus of the collaboration is to spur development of curative treatments for children and adults with brain tumors by harnessing the power of the body’s own immune system, a treatment known as immunotherapy. It’s believed the upcoming initiative among 12 distinguished institutions will be among the largest collective efforts focused on brain tumor immunotherapy worldwide.

“We’re excited about joint efforts to bring forward immunologic treatments and catalyze immunotherapy research for brain tumors,” said Mitchell, director of the UF Brain Tumor Immunotherapy Program. “The Legacy Program is really designed to be a sustained 10-year initiative to reframe the prospects of long-term survival for patients with brain cancer using immunotherapy.”

Currently, five-year survival for patients diagnosed with the most aggressive brain tumors ranges from less than 1 percent to less than 10 percent. “These statistics are unacceptably low and haven’t changed significantly in decades,” said Mitchell, co-leader of the Cancer Therapeutics and Host Response research program at the UF Health Cancer Center.

The Legacy Program involves translational research spanning from laboratory work to multi-institutional clinical trials evaluating novel cancer immunotherapy approaches.

“The research leverages some of the best existing knowledge as well as identifies key gaps in our current understanding,” said Mitchell, who led a team that won a Top 10 Clinical Research Achievement Award from the Clinical Research Forum in 2016 for identifying a new vaccine approach to treat glioblastoma, the deadliest of brain tumors, with average survival of less than 18 months.

That research, conducted at UF and Duke University, showed in a randomized and blinded pilot clinical trial that patients who received an enhanced cancer vaccine had almost double the overall survival compared with those in the control group in the study. Now, the team is advancing that discovery with a large, Phase II clinical trial currently underway to confirm the findings.

In the five years since Mitchell brought his program from Duke to the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida, he and William Friedman, M.D., co-director of the Preston A. Wells Jr. Center for Brain Tumor Therapy, have accelerated the growth of the center to now include more than 80 clinical and research faculty and staff members.

“Dr. Mitchell and his team are leading the way in their vigorous pursuit of new treatments for some of the most devastating diseases,” said David R. Nelson, M.D., interim senior vice president for health affairs at UF & president of UF Health. “By combining forces with other pioneers in their field through the new Legacy Program, they will offer new treatments — and hope — to patients facing truly grim prognoses. We are proud of the work being led by Dr. Mitchell, and we look forward to watching the Legacy Program evolve.”

Since 2013, investigators within UF’s brain tumor center have developed five novel immunotherapy treatments that are in active clinical trials at UF. Several of these trials are multi-institutional, with personalized immunotherapy treatments generated at UF and then exported to treatment centers elsewhere across the country. UF serves as the central coordinating facility and manufacturer of patient-specific treatments for these multicenter clinical trials.

UF Health has one of the most comprehensive portfolios of clinical trials and research studies available for patients with brain tumors, Mitchell said.  Currently, the UF Health Cancer Center website lists 34 actively enrolling clinical studies available for eligible brain tumor patients  (https://cancer.ufl.edu/clinical-trials-2/find-a-clinical-trial/brain-and-nervous-system/).

This collaborative initiative of top institutions will elevate brain cancer immunotherapy research to the next level, Mitchell said. The UF team will join with 11 top brain tumor centers, with each contributing specialized expertise to the collaboration going forward.

“What’s unique about this consortia approach,” Mitchell said, “is that we’re really focused on translational research, bridging that interface between lab discovery and clinical application, or even taking information from clinical trials that have already been run and bringing that back into the laboratory to solve newly identified problems”.

“This,” he said, “will speed up the pace of new discoveries and the impact of immunotherapy for patients with brain tumors.”