Jul 07, 2021
By Susan Sandler, Conquer Cancer
2021 marks Conquer Cancer's sixth year of collaboration with Gateway for Cancer Research. Founded in 1991 by Richard J Stephenson—also the founder of Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA)—Gateway was established to transform cancer care by empowering patients with innovative treatment options and integrative therapies. Through its own robust grants program and grants initiated through collaborations, Gateway’s focus is on supporting phase I and phase II clinical trials that include patients of all ages with any type of cancer, at any stage.
Since 2016, Gateway has co-funded five Young Investigator Awards (YIAs) for physician-scientists on the cusp of launching careers in clinical or translational oncology research. For 2021 and 2022, Gateway is fully supporting these awards. Additionally, in 2019 Gateway launched a biennial Gateway Discovery Grant, administered by Conquer Cancer. Each grant provides 3 to 5 years of funding to catalyze innovative clinical research. This year’s Discovery Grant focuses on mitigating health disparities.
Inaugural Conquer Cancer/Gateway YIA recipient Connie Lee Batlevi, MD, PhD, and recent grantee Laura Agresta, MD, MSc, discuss how the grants helped shape their careers and research work.
Supporting Innovative CAR T-Cell Research
Dr. Batlevi, an assistant attending oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), received the first ever Conquer Cancer/Gateway YIA in 2016. “I received my [YIA] for my research on utilizing chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells for patients with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) who were ineligible for a stem cell or bone marrow transplant,” she said. “This was an early clinical trial designed with the help of my mentors. This trial was a component of a National Institutes of Health Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in Lymphoma grant that has contributed greatly to my growth.”
Six years after Dr. Batlevi’s first YIA, she is now a Gateway grantee who was awarded nearly $300,000 to continue her work over a 3-year period, for her trial on enhancing the metabolic function of CAR T cells for lymphoma.
“I feel privileged that I was able to work with so many leaders in the field to absorb their scientific rationale and observe their skills in dissecting translational data,” Dr. Batlevi said. “I met collaborators who helped guide me toward other meaningful research projects across lymphoma subtypes. Through these collaborations, I’ve been lucky to publish our work on the natural history of follicular lymphoma, understanding the impact of PET scans in outcomes assessment in follicular lymphoma, and enhance the basic science studies from our laboratory colleagues by using clinical samples to establish a clinical relevance to their research. I have also been honored to be the MSKCC site investigator for a therapy which ultimately received FDA approval in follicular lymphoma.”
Her latest study is a natural extension of her early investigations into CAR T cells and lymphomas, she explained.
“As I expanded on my CAR T-cell research, I found an intriguing paper by my colleague Santosha Vardhana, MD, PhD, on the influence of metabolomics on T-cell health. CAR T cells are hypothesized to fail because of T-cell exhaustion. This led me to my current proposal to study the use of an ancient drug called N-acetylcysteine to reverse the T-cell exhaustion phenotype,” Dr. Batlevi said. “This clinical trial was recently directly funded by Gateway; the funds will support execution of the clinical trial for the next 3 years and help analyze crucial patient-derived specimens so we may learn how CAR T cells function and develop more therapies to help them be more effective. I am so excited to develop this clinical trial and support the robust bedside-to-bench research. The observations we make from both the trial and the strong laboratory correlatives could help develop new drugs in this space.”
Dr. Batlevi’s experience emphasizes the incredible impact of funding and support in the early years of a researcher’s career.
“I am still a young investigator,” she said, “yet, I have been lucky to be in the rooms where decisions are made. To participate amongst this strong network of colleagues and investigators is an immense privilege. I am blessed by these opportunities because my career started with a Conquer Cancer YIA.”
Optimizing Combination Therapy for AML
The recipient of the 2020 Conquer Cancer/Gateway YIA, Dr. Agresta has focused on acute myeloid leukemia (AML) research. She is an assistant professor in pediatric hematology/oncology at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.
“Our Conquer Cancer/Gateway-sponsored clinical trial at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital seeks to optimize the excellent response rates of liposomal daunorubicin/cytarabine in relapsed and refractory AML by adding an oral, targeted therapy called venetoclax,” Dr. Agresta said. “Each patient receives one course of study therapy with the goal of achieving a complete response so that [the patient] can proceed to potentially curative bone marrow transplant. We have been able to successfully treat a number of patients thus far and the trial is continuing to enroll.”
As with Dr. Batlevi, early research support has had a significant impact on the trajectory of Dr. Agresta’s career: “In addition to supporting this clinical trial, the Conquer Cancer YIA helped me secure a faculty position at Michigan State University with protected research time to pursue further studies in pediatric precision cancer therapeutics,” she said.
Gateway and Conquer Cancer are proud to support the innovative research being conducted by Dr. Batlevi, Dr. Agresta, and the next generation of leaders in oncology.
“Congratulations to both Dr. Batlevi and Dr. Agresta for being awarded Conquer Cancer YIA grants. They are extraordinarily talented physician-scientists, and I am excited to follow their careers,” said Michael Burton, president and CEO of Gateway. “Gateway understands the urgent need to support young investigators contributing to cancer research and we are proud to invest in early-career researchers like Dr. Batlevi, who went on to become a Gateway grantee. My colleagues at Gateway and I are grateful for our partnership with Conquer Cancer and look forward to continuing our productive collaboration well into the future.”
“Conquer Cancer is proud to work with Gateway for Cancer Research to nurture the careers of early investigators as they research effective treatments through phase I and II clinical trials,” said Nancy R. Daly, MS, MPH, Conquer Cancer CEO. “The collaboration with Gateway has helped launch the careers of such impressive physician-scientists as Dr. Batlevi and Dr. Agresta, and we look forward to following their work for many years to come.”