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Gianpietro Dotti, MD.
Gianpietro Dotti, MD.

University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Gianpietro Dotti, MD, has received a $75,000 grant from the Seattle-based Rivkin Center for Ovarian Cancer to support early studies using genetically engineered immune cells to recognize and attack ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer is the fifth deadliest cancer among women in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the U.S. this year, and it was cause approximately 14,000 deaths.

“Some women with ovarian cancer who relapse after treatment can still respond to chemotherapy, but others do not. For these women we need innovative therapy, and engineered T cells can be one of them,” said Dotti, who is a professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

The Rivkin Center has awarded $1.185 million in grants to ovarian cancer researchers this year, and more than $11 million since the organization was founded.

“The projects selected this year have tremendous potential to move the progress of ovarian cancer research forward, and help women live longer, healthier lives,” said Joe White, the center’s executive director.

Dotti and his colleagues are developing a method to attack ovarian cancer by genetically modifying a person’s own immune cells – specifically T cells – to recognize ovarian cancer. They have discovered that the antigen B7-H3 is present on most ovarian cancer cells, and are studying whether they can modify the T cells to recognize the antigen. Cancer cells can go undetected by the immune system since they are a person’s own cells. Dotti’s team is focused on programming T cells to home in on the antigen and then attack the cancer cell.

Dotti plans to combine this immunotherapy approach with novel drugs to attack other cells within the tumor to increase the activity of the B7-H3.CAR T cells. The first step is to conduct preclinical experiments in laboratory models and, if the results are promising, to pursue clinical trials in women with ovarian cancer.

The study is part of a UNC Lineberger’s cellular immunotherapy program, which develops personalized immune-based treatments using chimeric antigen receptor T cell, or CAR-T, therapies. UNC Lineberger researchers have already launched clinical trials for CAR-T cell-based therapies for blood cancers, and researchers are working to develop this promising approach for solid tumors, including ovarian cancer.