Silvia Formenti, MD
New York, New York
Professor and Chairman
Department of Radiation Oncology
Weill Cornell Medical College
New York, New York
Identifying ways to improve immunotherapy responses so that more patients can benefit from this promising treatment.
Immunotherapy stimulates a person's immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells and is a promising treament for breast cancer patients. However, some tumors can evade immune attack. Checkpoint inhibitors (CPI), a type of immunotherapy, work by preventing tumor cells from evading a patient’s immune response. While CPI drugs are approved for treatment of various types of cancers, including some breast cancers, their effectiveness in breast cancer has been disappointing overall. Drs. Formenti and Demaria are investigating ways to improve response to immunotherapies by combining it with radiation treatment. Their research has shown that radiation therapy has the potential to convert a nonresponsive (immunogenically cold) tumor into a responsive (immunogenically hot) one. It does this by generating T cells, the cancer-fighting cells of the immune system. Drs. Formenti and Demaria have taken cells from patients with different types of breast cancer and developed a series of laboratory models that recapitulate the 3D environment of the tumors. Using these innovative models, they will determine ways to enhance responses to immunotherapy with radiation—this will provide a critical step towards developing precision radiotherapy, facilitating its use in combination with immunotherapy as a successful and durable treatment approach for breast cancer patients.
Drs. Formenti and Demaria have shown that radiotherapy not only kills tumor cells but also recruits the immune system to fight the cancer. In the last year, they have found that hormone receptor-positive and triple-negative breast cancers activate different inflammatory pathways in response to radiation. In addition, they have characterized their 3D models and conducted in depth investigations to optimize the combination of radiation and CPI therapy, tailoring the treatment to specific characteristics of each tumor.
In the coming year, Drs. Formenti and Demaria will continue to examine how the molecular subtype of breast cancer affects the ability of radiation therapy to induce the immune signals required for an anti-tumor response. They will also leverage the information derived from their model systems to perform pre-clinical studies to determine ways to monitor an immunogenic response to tumor irradiation.
Dr. Silvia C. Formenti, an international expert in the use of radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer, is Chair of the newly established Department of Radiation Oncology at Weill Cornell Medical College and Radiation Oncologist-in-Chief at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. A prolific researcher, she has published over 180 papers recognized by high impact journals like JAMA, Journal of Clinical Oncology, Lancet Oncology, Science etc.
During the past twelve years, Dr. Formenti has introduced a paradigm shift in radiation biology, by elucidating the role of ionizing radiation on the immune system, and demonstrating efficacy of combining radiotherapy with immunotherapy in solid tumors. She has translated her preclinical work to clinical trials in metastatic breast cancer, lung cancer and melanoma. She has introduced the concept of recovering an immunological equilibrium in metastatic disease, by converting a metastasis into an in situ, individualized vaccine. In the presence of immune checkpoint blockade (anti-CTLA-4 , anti-PDL-1) the irradiated tumor becomes an immunogenic hub, similar to a vaccine. Once immunized against one site, the host develops an anti-tumor immune response capable to reject the other metastases. In some patients with metastatic disease refractory to standard treatment the combination of local radiation and immune checkpoint blockade has resulted in durable complete remissions, sustained for years after treatment. Her work has opened a new field of application for radiotherapy, whereby localized radiation can be used as an adjuvant to immunotherapy of solid tumors and lymphomas.
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