Cancer Research Spotlights Innovation

Inova grants foster cutting-edge studies with power to transform care 

Cancer Research

When potentially deadly melanoma spreads, growing numbers of patients are offered immunotherapy to unleash the immune system’s power to kill cancer cells. But only some cancer patients respond to immunotherapy — perplexing doctors hoping to rein in the threat. 

Now Inova scientists are among the first to tackle the “why” in cutting-edge cancer-related projects, winning coveted research funding that’s part of a new Inova grant program developed to encourage home-grown talent and foster vital collaborations.

With the highly anticipated opening of Inova Schar Cancer Institute in April, all the oncology award-winners will pursue and implement emerging technologies surrounding cancer care. Inova researchers nurture high hopes that these innovations will lead to transformative changes in testing for various types of cancer and improved treatment response rates.

“Immunotherapies are changing the way we treat melanomas and other cancers, but we still need better predictive markers because not everyone is getting benefit from the treatment,” says Sekwon Jang, MD, Director of Melanoma and Cutaneous Oncology Therapeutics and Research at Inova Schar. Dr. Jang’s winning research is exploring a novel test to determine which melanoma patients respond better to immunotherapy such as nivolumab (Opdivo) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda) than others.

“It’s not prime-time yet, but hopefully in coming years we’ll have better ways of predicting this,” he adds.

Inova encourages collaboration

Launched in 2018 by the Office of Research and Commercialization, the Inova Translational Research Funding (ITRF) program aims to support original, cutting-edge translational research at Inova. Encouraging collaboration among Inova researchers, across Inova departments, outside institutions and industry leaders, ITRF intends to lead to larger research endeavors advancing Inova’s mission to benefit patients and the community.

A pair of ITRF winners focusing on advances outside cancer care include a study on liver fibrosis, or scarring, in obese patients who have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and research to identify gene-related biomarkers that signal organ rejection in patients who recently received transplants.

A springboard for future research 

Dr. Jang is co-investigator of a first-in-human effort that builds on pre-clinical research on as many as 20 melanoma patients with a collaborator at University of Maryland. Patients will undergo comprehensive tissue collection, with samples taken of blood, lymph nodes and tumors, to determine biological reasons some melanoma patients respond to immunotherapy and others don’t.

“Hopefully this will be a fruitful project we can build a larger study from,” Dr. Jang says, “and also help Inova Schar to get recognition by presenting it at national and international meetings.”

Lana Bijelic, MD, Medical Director of Surgical Oncology at Inova Schar, is primary investigator of another ITRF grant-funded project focusing on mesothelioma, a lethal cancer affecting the lining of the lungs, heart or abdomen typically caused by exposure to asbestos. Her research will perform genomic profiling of mesothelioma tumors lining the abdomen to identify how gene mutations and other alterations affect the protein balance within cells — a key to cell function.

“We realized this rare tumor might be a good model that potentially impacts how we understand other cancers as well,” Dr. Bijelic explains. “It’s a very specific population that not many institutions are able to study.”

Lasting leadership

Drs. Jang and Bijelic point out that the new ITRF research awards — which they’re thrilled to have earned — underscore Inova’s mission to offer personalized healthcare to the community.

“Inova is already able — and wants even more, with Inova Schar — to treat all forms of cancer and the most complex cases,” Dr. Bijelic says. “But if we want to continue to lead, then research has to be part of it. Especially in oncology, if you want to be on the cutting edge of treatment, you have to constantly reinvent and change that treatment, which comes through research.”

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