The Yale Cancer Center and the Yale-New Haven Smilow Cancer Hospital have received an $11 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to support their work in lung cancer research.
The five-year grant will fund a Specialized Program of Research Excellence that will bring together a cross-disciplinary team of researchers. The idea is to develop more effective treatments for lung cancer, which causes over 150,000 deaths each year and is the leading cause of cancer-related death both in the United States and worldwide.
“The goal of the SPORE is to bridge the gap between the lab and the clinic,” said Roy Herbst, chief of medical oncology at Yale University and Smilow Cancer Hospital and the main principal investigator on the grant. “It can take a long time to translate the science into clinical treatments, and this program helps us accelerate the process by bringing together a diverse team of scientists and clinicians,” he added.
Researchers at Yale have made progress in improving the efficacy of lung cancer treatments, said Lieping Chen, director of the Cancer Immunology Program at the Yale Cancer Center and co-PI of the grant. He said that while no effective treatment existed five years ago, the advent of immunotherapy and precision medicine means that now up to 50 percent of patients respond to these treatments.
The new program will support lung cancer work on multiple fronts, said Katerina Politi, who co-leads one of the projects and serves as assistant professor of pathology and medicine at the Yale School of Medicine. The researchers will work on immunotherapy, in which scientists stimulate the body’s own immune cells to target tumor cells, as well as on targeted therapies — drugs that block the function of molecules required for tumor growth and survival. The research involves understanding how cancer cells in particular individuals become resistant to treatment and tailoring therapies for each individual.
The team is also trying to identify scientific ways to help individuals give up smoking, Chen said.
“By the time we show patients that they have developed lung cancer, it is too late,” he explained. “If we can identify biomarkers that show people early on how they are progressing towards lung cancer, we make the doctor’s job [of convincing these smokers] that much easier.”
The money will also be used to bring new investigators into lung cancer research, said Politi. According to Chen, each year, the Yale SPORE will award four to six grants of $50,000 each to help new researchers get started in the field. In addition, part of the grant will be used to support established investigators, allowing them to stay in the field.
Studies by researchers at Yale and at the other lung cancer SPOREs in the country have translated into major improvements in the standard of care for lung cancer, Toby Hecht, associate director of the NCI’s Translational Research Program, wrote in a Wednesday email. Noting the highly competitive nature of this grant, she added that the NCI is excited to support the team of highly qualified investigators in addressing the most pressing questions in lung cancer research.
“This is one big step for lung cancer research at Yale,” said Herbst. “People are coming to Yale and people are coming to the Smilow Cancer Hospital because by having the top research, we can give top clinical care.”
The new SPORE in lung cancer joins the existing one in skin cancer as the second SPORE at the Yale Cancer Center.
Correction: Sept. 3
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Toby Hecht as Tony Hecht, and mistakenly referred to her using male pronouns.