Renowned for successfully treating patients in advanced stages of melanoma with a personalized vaccine, Dr. Michal Lotem, Hadassah Medical Organization Senior Dermatologist and Oncologist and head of its Center for Melanoma and Cancer Immunotherapy, has been awarded a grant from the prestigious Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA). Based in New York, MRA contributes several million dollars every year to promising researchers in the field of melanoma, but usually to scientists working in the United States.
This grant, for $337,500 dollars over three years, was given to the Hadassah team– including Dr. Galit Eisenberg and Dr. Roni Engelstein–first to find the best method of treating melanoma under lab conditions and then to identify a medication that will prove effective against the disease in patients.
The research concept involves a receptor on the surface of inflamed cells that Dr. Lotem and her research team located. This receptor regulates the actions the cells can take. The Hadassah team has also found a way to activate this receptor, to stimulate it to accelerate an individual’s immune response against melanoma cells.
“We are talking about a new direction,” explains Dr. Lotem. “The receptor and the importance of its biological activity is what stands at the center of our research, done in cooperation with the researchers from the Hebrew University– Prof. Michal Baniyash and Dr. Ofra Benny.”
While an ambitious goal, the Hadassah team is optimistic. “Today we are seeing a revolution in the treatment of melanoma,” notes Dr. Lotem, “and the Hadassah Medical Organization is among the world leaders because we always believed that the immune system can combat cancer. In recent years, we have found just how great the importance of the immune system is in eradicating cancer. Therefore, every discovery that confirms our line of research opens an additional treatment approach–great news for patients who now have the possibility to receive the help they need.”
Dr. Lotem worked as a fellow at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, under the mentorship of Dr. Stewart Rosenberg, a pioneer and leader of modern cancer immunotherapy. Fortified with this training, when she returned to Hadassah, she developed personalized melanoma vaccines, using the patient’s own tumor cells. She has been using different generations of these vaccines to treat advanced cases of the disease for 16 years. The 2014 version of the personalized melanoma vaccine is genetically engineered with state-of-the-art immunology to produce a stronger immune response to the tumor.
The vaccines have proven to stop the progression and/or recurrence of melanoma for over 200 patients.
Hadassah is also beginning to treat patients with an even more advanced therapy for metastatic melanoma that was developed by Dr. Rosenberg and is available in only about a dozen medical facilities worldwide. Employing “adoptive transfer of tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs),” this treatment, called TIL therapy, is based on releasing immune cells from the melanoma tumor and expanding these cells to billions more in a specialized laboratory. The cells are then transplanted back into the patient.
Hadassah is also working on vaccines for lung, ovarian, colon, and breast cancers. Because Hadassah has a huge bank of tumor lines, coupled with expertise, it is well positioned to create new vaccines.