Hundreds of cancer research experts were in Austin the last two days sharing ideas on treatment and prevention, as well as supporting an agency they say will help Texas become a healthier state.
The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) held the Innovations V Conference, bringing together the latest research happening in the state. Dr. Harpreet Singh, CEO of Immatics US Inc., was one of the presenters during the conference.
Immatics Biotechnologies GmbH is a Germany-based company that started working in Texas two years ago, through a partnership with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Singh said what brought Immatics to continue its research in Texas was largely due to a nearly $20 million CPRIT grant and the partnership with MD Anderson.
They launched Immatics US, Inc., which is a company dedicated to finding adoptive cellular therapies (ACT) for the treatment of a range of tumor types. Cancer immunotherapy is using the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells.
Singh said while it works in certain blood and skin cancers like melanoma, there are many types of cancers where cancer immunotherapy doesn’t work yet. “Cancers like lung cancer, ovarian cancer, breast cancer, head and neck cancer, pancreatic cancer – the options that cancer patients have today are still very limited,” Singh said.
Immunotherapy is something that requires a lot of experience and safety management in the process, Singh said.
“If you think of immunotherapy being the hammer, what we deliver are the nails,” Singh said. “You need the right nails on the cancer cells so that you can apply the hammer. MD Anderson brings in the hammer, we bring in the nails.”
Cam Scott, senior director of government relations in Texas for the American Cancer Society, said the type of work Singh’s doing is critical for cancer treatment research. Right now, Immatics has two clinical trials approved by the FDA.
“We have a lot of clinical trials happening here that are the result of CPRIT-funded research,” Scott said.
Mike Lang, CPRIT’s chief product development officer, said immunotherapy can provide dramatic impact, but typically “have impact only on specific patient populations.”
“Cancer is a highly heterogeneous disease, i.e. it’s a collection of hundreds of similar diseases,” he said in a statement. “Immunotherapies are typically highly effective on particular cancer subtypes.”
Dr. Navkiran Shokar, a professor and vice chair for research at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center – El Paso, said the impact of CPRIT can be felt by families right now. Shokar cites a cervical cancer program and a breast cancer screening program in her community, all stemming from CPRIT.
“We’re really able to make big, meaningful differences in people’s lives,” Shokar said. “That’s the other thing about CPRIT that’s really beneficial to the community in that it does fund services, which many other kind of grants don’t do.”
Dr. Lorraine Reitzel is an associate professor at the University of Houston and a grantee of CPRIT funding. She has two grants and it’s being used to work with healthcare agencies across Texas to create a tobacco-free workplace program.
“It includes all kinds of education, clinical training, tobacco-free workplace policies, community outreach,” she said. “The idea is we work with agencies where the consumers and even the employees tend to use tobacco at particularly high rates. We know that if we can implement comprehensive tobacco-free workplace programs, we can increase tobacco quit rates.”
Voters approved the creation of CPRIT a decade ago, but some lawmakers remain firm that the agency needs to be self-sufficient when state funding runs out.
State Senator Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, filed legislation the last two sessions to require CPRIT to have a plan in place when that happens. Schwertner said in an emailed statement the organization should’ve thought about the issue of sustainability from the start of its existence.
“In general, I don’t support continued state financial assistance when voters approved a certain dollar amount over a certain amount of time,” he said. “It’s not fiscally responsible and it’s not a good use of taxpayer dollars.”
CPRIT was the focus of a financial probe in 2012, with state leaders putting a hold on grants due to allegations of corruption. Lawmakers eventually restored CPRIT’s budget after passing provisions to restructure the agency’s grant processes, improving oversight and preventing conflicts of interest.
According to CPRIT’s website, the agency has funded 1,189 awards for cancer research, product development and prevention. The total amount awarded so far is $1.8 billion. Recipients include academic institutions, non-profit organizations and private companies across the state.
CPRIT’s sunset review date is in 2023, which is when lawmakers will have to act on this voter-approved agency. Singh hopes there will be continued support for the cancer research community, so clinical trials can be worked on and doctors will have resources to help patients.
“Not just clinical responses, but durable clinical responses that really extend the lives of cancer patients in a meaningful fashion,” he said.