The Pelotonia Institute for Immuno-Oncology (PIIO) launched at Ohio State with a $102,265,000 investment from the Pelotonia community. The announcement happened and introduced Zihai Li, MD, PhD
, the founding director of the (PIIO)
, on July 26, 2019. This public announcement and celebration of the institute’s formation was not the beginning but a continuation of early successful endeavors in this relatively new area of cancer research and therapy, largely considered the next frontier in cancer prevention and treatment.
“You may ask this question: ‘Cancer immunotherapy—Are we there yet?’” Li said when addressing the audience at a PIIO celebratory event held outside The James. “The answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’ Immunotherapy provides exciting and expanding arsenals for fighting cancer. It refuels the immune system so that it actually can find and destroy the sneaky cancer cells wherever they hide.”
Li said immunotherapy also can stop cancer cells from developing and spreading, decreasing the chances for recurrence.
“In the last five years we have seen extraordinary results of immunotherapy for several deadly cancer types, including lung cancer, melanoma, leukemia, and others,” he said. “However, there are still many remaining critical unanswered questions regarding cancer immunotherapy.”
Hence the need for an institute dedicated to this modality. The PIIO at the OSUCCC – James is a comprehensive bench-to-bedside research initiative focused on harnessing the body’s immune system to fight cancer at all levels—from prevention to treatment and survivorship.
Pelotonia, a grassroots cycling event that has raised just shy of $200 million for cancer research initiatives at the OSUCCC – James, has pledged more than $102 million over the next five years for the PIIO. The largest portion of the pledge—$65 million—will directly fund the institute. The remaining dollars will continue to support such well-established Pelotonia-funded initiatives as fellowships for students wanting to conduct cancer research with faculty mentors, Idea Grants for teams of faculty researchers, statewide research initiatives and equipment purchases.
The OSUCCC – James is also supporting the PIIO with a $35 million commitment to expand and sustain research infrastructure.
The cancer program plans to add up to 32 faculty over the next five years to work within the PIIO. Multi-phase laboratory renovations will take place during this time to create advanced cellular lab facilities, immune monitoring and discovery platforms, immunogenomics, systems immunology and other research areas for start-up initiatives and collaborations with other academic centers and industry partners.
Several Ohio State and Pelotonia officials spoke at the PIIO announcement event, including Ohio State University President Michael Drake, MD, OSUCCC Director Raphael Pollock, MD, PhD, Pelotonia President and CEO Doug Ulman, and Li, a world-renowned authority in immuno-oncology who was recruited from the Medical University of South Carolina Hollings Cancer Center to lead the new institute. Li arrived at Ohio State last April.
Drake said the Pelotonia pledge of $102,265,000 is “the largest gift ever to the cancer center and one of the largest gifts in university history.” He explained that the “$2,265” numbers in the pledge are in honor of the 2,265 riders who took part in the inaugural Pelotonia cycling event in 2009.
“This gift will allow for an entirely new level of collaboration, research and discovery—a level possible only at a comprehensive university like Ohio State,” Drake said. “On behalf of the university, I want to express my sincere gratitude to everyone in the Pelotonia community for their generosity and support over the past decade. None of this would be possible without their amazing dedication and passion.”
Pollock said the potential for immunotherapy is so strong that university leaders are confident that it will become another standard treatment modality for cancer along with surgery, systemic therapy such as chemotherapy and hormonal therapy, precision or targeted therapies, and radiation therapy.
“Unlike those therapeutic approaches, the immunotherapeutic approach seeks to harness the body’s own immune defenses against cancer, rather than bringing something from the outside in that might directly attack the cancer itself,” Pollock added. “We anticipate—and this is some of the work of the institute—that these modalities will be combined in the majority of cases, working to complement each other’s strengths while downplaying the weaknesses and the toxicities.”
He noted that some new and effective immune treatments have already been developed and launched at the OSUCCC – James, “and in fact for some types of tumor systems, immunotherapy has replaced chemotherapy or other approaches as the front line of treatment as recently as 18 to 24 months ago. However, we need to better understand how we can harness a patient’s own antitumor response while expanding the range of cancers that will be amenable to this new therapy.”
Li mentioned a number of unanswered questions regarding immunotherapy.
“Only 10 to 20 percent of patients benefit from current immunotherapies. The question is, ‘Why?’” he said. “How do we identify patients who will benefit from this modality? How can we convert patients who are non-responders to responders? And in arming the immune system to fight cancer, how do we assure that the immune system doesn’t go overboard and lead to harming normal organs?”
Li said the PIIO is attempting to answer these and other questions. “We partner with the exceptional researchers and physicians at the OSUCCC – James who are already working in this field, and we will recruit more than 30 leading experts who will bring ground-breaking and game-changing ideas to Ohio State. Together, we’ll gain greater knowledge of how the immune system works, and we’ll use this knowledge to exploit weaknesses in cancer cells and tumors so we can turn laboratory discoveries into bedside treatments.”
Ulman called the PIIO event “a momentous day” in celebration of an institute “that will change and save thousands and thousands of lives. It’s the reason we ride (in Pelotonia). It’s the reason we raise money. It’s the reason this community has come together for more than a decade to significantly reduce the impact that cancer has on all of our lives.”
“As we stand here today in front of The James,” Ulman added, “we can never forget that there are people in that building who are being treated at this very moment, and all they wish to hear are the words, ‘You are cancer-free.’ It’s with them in mind that we pursue this mission together.”
The audience also heard from a cancer survivor who has benefited from immunotherapy at the OSUCCC – James. Christine Sander, a mother of two and a Pelotonia rider with Team Buckeye – Team CTCL (cutaneous T-cell lymphoma), shared the story of the symptoms she began experiencing in 2015 and the lack of a diagnosis until she was connected with The James.
Sander remembers telling her husband, “I think I’m dying, and there’s no one to help. I don’t know who to go to.” But later that same day, “thankfully and through what I firmly believe was divine intervention, I was connected with Dr. Robert Baiocchi at The James. He called well after business hours … and I remember very clearly hearing the words, “We know what you have, there is a treatment, and we’ll get you back to your happy life.”
She said her treatment included both chemotherapy and immunotherapy drugs, a combination that had been established through research. “If I had had the same diagnosis a decade and a half ago, I would’ve had about a 50-50 shot,” she said. “Because of research, I was told that the regimen was upward of 90 percent effective.”
In her Pelotonia profile, Sander stated that this year “marks my three-year anniversary of completing chemo. As each year passes, I remain grateful that the cancer I was diagnosed with was highly treatable, thanks to a research trial. While my battle was short and the outcome amazingly positive, others are still fighting to continue their lives.”
She told the audience at the PIIO celebration that she had been one of four young mothers diagnosed at the same time with the same subtype of cancer. “Even with that research regimen, one of us did not make it,” she said. “So I don’t need to tell this audience that there’s still work to be done, and this is so immensely exciting today with this (PIIO) announcement.”
In closing the event, Pollock thanked his many colleagues at the OSUCCC – James “who have been involved in making this prospect a reality,” and he also expressed gratitude broadly to the Pelotonia community. “We deeply appreciate your efforts.”
Robert Hecker is a Senior Content Specialist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute