Cancer immunotherapy researchers at Mass General are identifying powerful new targets by using the immune system to fight cancer — bringing new hope to patients and changing the future course of cancer treatment.

Patients diagnosed with melanoma once had little hope for a cure. In recent years, however, new cancer treatments developed and tested at Massachusetts General Hospital are changing the odds.

Better therapies are helping more patients and leading toward greater hope for all.

Through new clinical trials, Ryan J. Sullivan, MD, medical oncologist at Mass General, is leading efforts to find better therapies that can cure more patients and offer greater hope to many more.

The Power of Immunotherapy

Dr. Sullivan’s melanoma research focuses on immunotherapy, using the power of the body’s own immune system response to recognize cancer cells and defeat them.

“We are in the process of testing new therapies in clinical trials that block or activate novel targets, as well as testing new combinations of existing therapies,” Dr. Sullivan says.

Ryan J. Sullivan, MD
Ryan J. Sullivan, MD

As of a decade ago, the 5-year survival rate for those with Stage IV (metastatic) melanoma was only 15 to 20 percent. With current approved therapies, approximately 30 to 40 percent of patients will either be cured or have prolonged survival.

The goal of Dr. Sullivan’s work is to “build on the success of the past decade to improve the outcomes of patients to frontline therapy, as well as develop better strategies to treat patients in whom frontline therapy is not effective.”

One of the biggest efforts of Dr. Sullivan’s team is “in identifying why patients either do not respond to treatment or their tumors come back after response. Learning the reasons for this will allow us to better identify agents or combinations of agents to successfully meet this unmet need.”

Predicting Tumor Behavior

One hurdle in developing cures for melanoma is the lack of reliable tumor biomarkers, or predictive indicators of how different types of tumors will behave. For this reason, a significant portion of Dr. Sullivan’s research is focused on identifying better biomarkers or ones that are easier to measure. These biomarkers in turn will help researchers understand which patients and tumor types will be most responsive to immunotherapy.

“As additional therapies and combinations of therapies are approved, there will be greater hope for our patients and their families.”

For example, Dr. Sullivan and his team are in the process of developing blood tests and radiology tests that are noninvasive and do not require tumor biopsies to understand what is happening in the tumors. As these types of efforts mature, Dr. Sullivan strongly believes that they will be able to better identify patients who are most (or least) likely to benefit from immunotherapy. The researchers are also investing time and effort to better predict the 10 to 20 percent of patients who will develop severe toxicity as a result of treatment, and how to mitigate these effects.

Improving Cancer Treatments

Dr. Sullivan’s work in melanoma is reflective of the broader research across all cancer types conducted at the Mass General Cancer Center – seeking to improve the way cancer immunotherapy is delivered. This includes identifying patients who will respond to standard immunotherapy approaches, and selecting better regimens for those patients who do not respond to these therapies. Additionally, efforts are ongoing to understand the side effects of immunotherapy and figure out who is at risk, and ideally who might benefit from strategies to reduce the risk of these side effects.

According to Dr. Sullivan, “As additional therapies and combinations of therapies are approved, there will be greater hope for our patients and their families.”

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