Mark Woodcock, MD
Mark Woodcock, MD

The Lung Cancer Initiative of North Carolina has awarded $25,000 to Mark Woodcock, MD, to support a research effort to identify characteristics of lung cancer patients who will respond to treatments that unlock the immune system against cancer.

Woodcock, a fellow in the UNC School of Medicine Division of Hematology/Oncology, was awarded a 2019-20 Lung Cancer Research Fellowship Grant by the initiative’s Scientific Advisory Committee. Because of the high quality of his application, he was named as the 2019 Lung Cancer Initiative Outstanding Fellow Applicant.

“We are pleased to support Dr. Woodcock and the team at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and applaud their commitment to leading-edge research that will ultimately impact the future of cancer care,” said Paige Humble, executive director of the Lung Cancer Initiative of North Carolina.

There were five fellowship grants awarded through the program to researchers at UNC School of Medicine, as well as at East Carolina University, Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute, Duke Cancer Institute, and Wake Forest Baptist Health. The purpose of the LCI Research Grant Program is to partner with leading cancer centers to foster important research in their own communities and encourage researchers to enter the field.

As part of his project, Woodcock will be working with UNC Lineberger’s Benjamin Vincent, MD, and Chad Pecot, MD, to investigate features of patients that could help them predict if patients with lung cancer will respond to immunotherapy treatments called checkpoint inhibitors.

The trial will require the researchers to examine genetic material collected from tumors and from blood samples before patients receive treatment, and then track their outcomes, in order to examine which tumor or patient features are linked to responses to immunotherapy. To-date, there are more than 400 samples already accrued, Woodcock said.

“Instead of looking for markers of response, we are looking for markers that predict responses in the future,” Woodcock said.

Woodcock said that currently, PD-L1 is the most widely used biomarker to gauge potential response to immunotherapy, but he said the test is “far from perfect” in identifying patients who will respond. Woodcock went on to say that there are still too many patients with lung cancer without good treatment options, especially for those who need second and third line options when the first-line therapies fail.

“We know from large studies that some patients with very high values have little or no response in their cancer when treated with immune therapy, while also that some patients with very low values may have good responses,” he said.  “A more accurate biomarker test would help get patients quickly on to a treatment that is most likely to reduce their cancer symptoms and extend their quality of life.”

Lung cancer claims more lives annually in the United States than any other cancer and more than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined, yet it is greatly underfunded, according to the initiative. Since 2008, the Lung Cancer Initiative has funded more than $1.7 million toward lung cancer research.