Weill Cornell Medicine Receives Grant to Study Effects of Radiation on Immunity

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Weill Cornell Medicine has been awarded a five-year, $8.1 million grant from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health to investigate the effects of the immune response in irradiated rectal cancer.

While studies have examined the impact of radiation and immunotherapy on cancer biology, this grant will fund a global research project that takes a deep dive into the field of radiation and immunity, to address a knowledge gap on how standard radiation affects a patient’s immune system.

“There’s a lot we can learn in terms of understanding how radiation works on the immune system itself in irradiated cancer patients,” said principal investigator Dr. Silvia Formenti, chairman of the Department of Radiation Oncology and the Sandra and Edward Meyer Professor of Cancer Research at Weill Cornell Medicine. “When you apply radiation to a tumor, there are both local and systemic effects: they both need to be understood.”

The grant will fund a multidisciplinary, international team comprised of basic and clinical investigators from seven academic centers already engaged in the field of radiation and immunity research, including Dr. Formenti and her research team at Weill Cornell Medicine, as well as scientists from the University of Chicago, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Rutgers University Hospital and three research centers in Europe. The researchers will converge to participate in a small prospective clinical trial with 50 newly diagnosed patients with rectal cancer, 25 patients each in the United States and Europe, to accelerate discovery.

Rectal cancer was chosen as a focus because a short course of radiation before surgery can be standard of care for patients with this form of cancer. Progress is also warranted in this disease, as the treatment effect on rectal cancer survival has varied little in the last 20 years.

In the study, patients will donate tissue, blood and stool samples before, during and after radiation treatment to monitor the tissue response to radiation. Samples will be collected again 2-4 weeks later, at the time of surgery, along with a research sampling of lymph nodes located inside and outside the radiation field. The tissues will be collected into a tissue bank to enable investigators to conduct multiple cutting-edge technological approaches to studying irradiated normal and cancer tissue as well as the microbiome in the radiation field.

“This tissue repository will enable us to explore the characteristics of the tumors that respond to radiation and those that don’t,” said Dr. Formenti, who is also associate director for translational research at the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. “This insight may help avoid additional treatments in future patients and select others for more effective treatments.”

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