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Immunotherapy: Rosenberg and June receive Lombardy is Research” Award 2023

For pioneering a new frontier: using patients’ natural and reprogrammed cells CAR-T as medications

Redazione Open Innovation

Redazione Open Innovation

Regione Lombardia

The international award “Lombardy is Research” 2023 goes to Steven A. Rosenberg and Carl H. June, two pioneers in immunotherapy research, a groundbreaking treatment in the fight against several previously incurable forms of cancer.

This was announced by the President of the Lombardy Region, Attilio Fontana, and the regional Minister for Research, Innovation, and University, Alessandro Fermi, after a jury of 14 top scientists, chaired by Marco Bianchi (a professor at the Vita Salute San Raffaele University in Milan, founder and partner of HMGBiotech srl, and an expert in HMGB nuclear proteins promoting inflammatory, immune, and tissue regeneration responses) indicated them as the winners of the €1 million award.

The award will be formally presented on November 8th at the Teatro alla Scala during the Research Day, dedicated to the memory of Umberto Veronesi and focused this year on "Innovative Models of Care, Therapy, and Prevention."

For more information about the Research Day, click here.

President Fontana: Lombardy values the role of innovation in medicine

“With this recognition - Fontana said - the Lombardy Region has highlighted the fundamental role of innovation in medicine and its impact on the daily lives of citizens. The use of immune cells derived from patients and reprogrammed according to the protocol identified by Rosenberg and then developed by June has allowed several patients who did not respond to traditional therapies to be completely cured. This year, 70% of the award must be invested in Lombardy, and we are confident that many of our fellow citizens will benefit from it”.

Fermi: Proud, funds will support important studies

“It is with a touch of emotion - Alessandro Fermi added - that I learned the names of the winners of the Research Award today. This is undoubtedly one of the central events of my ministry, and knowing that the funds made available by the Region will be used to continue such important studies or research fills me with pride. Being able to give cancer patients one more reason to hope for a cure, I believe, is one of the most beautiful pieces of news we can share during the highly anticipated Research Day”.

Why immunotherapy: an innovative choice

Immunotherapy with patient-derived immune cells represents a breakthrough in the fight against cancer. After decades in which surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy were the only options, it has become an innovative therapy with promising results for forms of cancer that were otherwise untreatable.

This approach uses the patient’s own cells as a therapeutic tool against cancer for the first time. This is the new path opened up by Rosenberg’s research, with significant contributions from June. The international jury recognized this paradigm shift by awarding the prize to Rosenberg and June from among many candidates.

Thus, the 2023 edition of the international award “Lombardy is Research” by the Lombardy Region has highlighted the fundamental role of innovation in medicine and its impact on the daily lives of citizens.

The use of patient-derived immune cells has been highly innovative, not to mention its immediate practical implications. Several patients treated with reprogrammed immune cells, activated according to the protocol identified by Rosenberg and the developments proposed by June, have been completely cured. These were mainly patients suffering from immune system neoplasms, such as lymphomas and leukemias, who did not respond to conventional therapies, as well as previously incurable melanomas. Without immunotherapy, these people would have had little hope.

The new path opened by Steven A. Rosenberg

Steven Rosenberg is an American surgeon and immunologist working at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
He was the first to use immune cells to treat melanoma, a skin cancer for which there was no therapy at the time. The cells were extracted from patients, grown in the laboratory, and reinfused into patients along with Interleukin 2, a soluble molecule that activates anti-tumor cells. Some patients were definitively cured using their own cells. The procedure described by Rosenberg in 2002 is called adoptive cell transfer and was the first example of effective immunotherapy. The limitations of the treatment lie in the small number of responsive patients, the need for a large number of cells, and the presence of unwanted side effects. Subsequent studies by Rosenberg and Carl June have made significant advancements.

The contribution of Carl H. June: CAR-T cells

Carl H. June is an American oncologist and immunologist, currently a professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
June successfully genetically modified T cells (immune cells that kill infected and tumor cells) to turn them into chimeric cells expressing a receptor for tumor antigens (CAR-T cells). This is an extraordinary invention because CAR-T cells, which do not exist naturally, have the ability to selectively recognize and kill tumor cells but not normal cells. The first clinical trials date back to the 1990s and are still in constant development, with next-generation CAR-T cells providing complete remission in patients with refractory leukemias and lymphomas. In 2017, two CAR-T cell therapies, tisagenlecleucel (Kymriah) and axicabtagene ciloleucel (Yescarta), were approved for use against acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL) and diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.

Current applications and future prospects

The studies by Rosenberg and June have provided a proof of principle for immune cell immunotherapy, demonstrating that this approach works. The future development of this approach will involve increasing the repertoire of targetable tumors by refining the creation of reprogrammed cells with higher specificity.

As mentioned by the jurors, immunotherapy still has significant room for growth. Efforts are being made to minimize side effects and maximize effectiveness in an increasing number of tumors, including solid tumors, for which various trials are ongoing. Meanwhile, technologies related to immunotherapy have also developed in other directions.

A different approach is centered on the immune system. This approach aims to target molecules that block the immune response against neoplasms, in order to ‘release the brakes’ on these molecules and activate the full potential of the immune system against cancer. Another very promising research direction focuses on the microbiota (the collection of microorganisms in our bodies) as an element that can influence the immune system and its defense capabilities.

Immunotherapy is now increasingly seen as an integrated system of approaches. Furthermore, it’s not just about immunotherapy for cancer; future applications could also include other diseases, such as autoimmune diseases. In all of this, the insights of Rosenberg and June have been revolutionary.

The ceremony

The award presentation will take place at the Research Day on November 8th.
The Research Day, as is tradition, will be a real celebration and spectacle.
After the musical opening by Paolo Fresu and Frida Bollani Magoni, the President of the Region, Fontana, and Minister Anna Maria Bernini will take the stage for official greetings. Then, Paolo Veronesi, President of the Veronesi Foundation, and Minister Fermi will speak. The architect and urban planner Carlo Ratti, the host Alessia Ventura, and Gerry Scotti, who has always been very attentive to research themes, will also participate.

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