Nonprofits announce groundbreaking research initiative

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WRITTEN BY: Jordan Dakin

On May 29, the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, JDRF and The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust announced a collaborative research initiative, which will see the three nonprofits funding $10 million in autoimmunity research over a three-year period. Primary goals include gaining a better understanding of the diagnosis of autoimmune disorders following cancer immunotherapy and a specific focus on preventing the occurrence of insulin-dependent diabetes following cancer therapies.

Immunotherapy is a common treatment for several cancers and researchers have observed an overwhelming rate of success with the treatment. But according to research published in the ADA journal Diabetes , after treatment with checkpoint inhibitors, roughly 1% of patients develop a form of insulin-dependent diabetes that appears similar to Type 1.

“The clinical success of immune checkpoint inhibitors such as ipilimumab, nivolumab and pembrolizumab has changed the face of cancer therapy, extending lives of patients who previously had few choices. In rare cases, these patients develop insulin-dependent diabetes, and nobody truly understands how or why,” said Parker Institute CEO and President Jeffrey Bluestone, Ph.D.

While these cancer therapies prove life-changing, the incidence of autoimmune conditions developing as a result certainly deserves further study.

“In putting together this research initiative, we hope to answer key questions that will help us predict and prevent autoimmunity following immunotherapy treatment in the future,” said Bluestone. “This is of increasing importance as more patients are being treated with checkpoint inhibitors and other immunotherapies.”

This initiative is a benchmark collaboration between leading diabetes research and cancer immunotherapy organizations. Experts from both fields will be able to focus specifically on the relationship between two otherwise segregated, but prevalent chronic illnesses.

“This collaboration combines leading experts in diabetes and cancer immunology to accomplish a feat that has never been achieved: permanently turning off an autoimmune response in humans,” said Aaron J. Kowalski, Ph.D., JDRF President and CEO. “Investing in this research will help us better understand, in real time, how Type 1 diabetes develops and potentially disable the immune system so that disease progression never happens.”

Nearly 1.25 million people in the U.S. currently live with T1D and the hope is that aside from autoimmunity research, insights into causes of Type 1 among the general population will also result from the initiative.

“We know little about the causes of Type 1 diabetes in otherwise healthy children and adults,” said Ben Williams, Ph.D., Helmsley Charitable Trust T1D program officer. “We believe that this research may reveal profound discoveries relevant to all forms of Type 1 diabetes, potentially leading to new biomarkers for detection and treatment. This partnership aligns with Helmsley’s desire to seek out and fund promising, high-risk research that could have a massive impact.”

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