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BCRF Investigator Since

2015

Area(s) of Focus

Herbert Levine, PhD

Hasselmann Professor of Bioengineering
Professor of Physics
Rice University
Houston, Texas
EIF/Stand Up To Cancer

Current Research

  • Studies are aimed at improving the effectiveness of immunotherapy by studying the tumor ecosystem.

  • A Stand Up To Cancer Convergence team applies a multi-disciplinary approach to tumor biology.

  • This collaborative research will lead to novel treatment approaches that modify the tumor environment to improve anti-tumor immunity and response to immunotherapy drugs.

Tumors consist not only of cancer cells, but also stromal and immune cells that constitute the tumor microenvironment (TME). The TME is an ecosystem of multiple cell populations, and the extracellular matrix (ECM) that they produce, that interact in a complex fashion to yield tissue form and function. 

Cancer cells can take on dramatically different properties based on influences from the microenvironment. In many different cancer types, including breast cancer (BC), tumors with more stromal cells typically have worse clinical outcomes. In contrast, tumors infiltrated by a type of immune cell called CD8 T cells have better clinical outcomes. Hence, tumors behave differently based on the collective behavior of the microenvironment. 

The objective of the Stand Up 2 Cancer (SU2C) Convergence team consisting of Drs. Atwal, Irvine, Lee, Levine and Yu is to apply systems and ecological approaches to study the TME and determine whether it is an important determinant for the efficacy of cancer immunotherapy. 

The SU2C team brings together expertise in high dimensional histology, image analysis, culturing cells from primary human breast tumors, 3D spheroids, bioinformatics, ecology modeling, and nanotechnology to study the ecology of the TME in BC, and develop therapeutic and imaging applications.

In the first year of their award, the SU2C team showed that cancer-associated fibroblasts and other immune-derived cells interact with cancer cells to promote tumor progression and metastasis. They also found the addition of a commonly used drug to treat parasitic infection improved reponse to anti PD-1/PD-L1 immunotherapy.

They are continuing these investigations to understand the relationship between the stromal cells and cancer cells and develop targeted approaches to improve response to treatments.

Bio

Dr. Levine is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He serves as the co-director for the National Science Foundation sponsored Center for Theoretical Biological Physics (CTBP), located on the campus of Rice University, as a partnership among Rice, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Houston. In this position, Dr. Levine supervises a large interdisciplinary team of researchers who apply methods from physical science to vexing problems in biology and biomedicine. A particular emphasis in recent years has been on cancer, where pure biology-based approaches have not proven capable of finding effective treatments or cures for metastatic disease. Dr. Levine is a member of the editorial board of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, editor in chief of the journal Physical Biology and an associate editor of Physical Review Letters. He is first author on over 250 publications in the area of theoretical physics as applied to a wide variety of systems, especially living systems.