Cancer: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Immunotherapy wolf in disguiseCancer cells can be pretty sneaky, altering their make-up or microenvironment to avoid detection by our body’s immune system. As a result, the immune system, which is designed to fight off “invaders,” can’t detect cancer as foreign and doesn’t have its guard up.

Earlier this month, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital kicked off a new ad campaign highlighting how immunotherapy is working to change just that. Immunotherapy treatments are designed to help activate the immune system and kick it into high gear, helping it fight the very cancer it was previously unable to detect.

New scientific discoveries happening right here at Weill Cornell Medicine are making this possible. Our physician-scientists and researchers at the Meyer Cancer Center have found ways to help the immune system better recognize and destroy cancer cells by designing new immunotherapy drugs, cancer “vaccines,” and combination treatments. Through precision medicine and an individualized approach to cancer care, we are developing new ways to treat cancer more successfully than ever before. And, we’re accomplishing these results with less toxicity.

Over the past decade, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several new immunotherapy drugs for advanced cancers. At the Weill Cornell Genitourinary (GU) Oncology Program, we have greatly contributed to the efforts to obtain FDA-approval for immunotherapies for GU cancers, including kidney cancer, bladder cancer, and prostate cancer.

For kidney cancer, we have been involved in many studies of drugs utilizing the immune system to fight cancer, including the phase 2 clinical trial that formed the basis for the large trial leading to the FDA approval and general availability of nivolumab (Opdivo) for renal cell carcinoma. Nivolumab is an immunotherapy that works by allowing the body’s existing immune system to kill tumors. Our team is now working on ways to improve this drug and other types of drugs.

For bladder and other urothelial cancers, we have been instrumental in the development of several antibodies that can be used with and without chemotherapy. Sacituzumab Govitecan (IMMU-132), an antibody-drug conjugate, has had remarkable preliminary activity. It works by leveraging the immune system and bringing a powerful drug directly to the interior of cancer cells in order to kill them from the inside out. We are continuing to use this drug as well as other immunotherapeutic agents to improve outcomes for patients with these types of cancer.

Based upon several scientific properties, prostate cancer is a good tumor type for immunotherapy, and in fact, the first therapeutic cancer vaccine (used to treat cancer rather than prevent cancer) was approved for prostate cancer. At Weill Cornell Medicine, exploiting the immune system remains a focus in fighting prostate cancer, with a number of ongoing and upcoming clinical trials. Weill Cornell Medicine continues to be a worldwide leader in work with monoclonal antibodies, which are proteins (like a “key”) that very specifically target cancer cells (with a specific “lock” that is not present on normal cells). In particular, our work with antibodies against prostate-specific membrane antigen (PSMA) has led to the development of several targeted therapies for prostate cancer. These antibodies can be linked to powerful radioactive particles or drugs that seek out prostate cancer cells (like a smart bomb). For men with prostate cancer whose PSAs rise despite hormonal therapy, we are leading a study of targeted radioimmunotherapy that aims to prevent metastatic disease. In addition, the antibody itself may be able to generate an immune response in prostate tumors and lead to clearance of circulating tumor cells. We are also working on developing vaccines for men with rising PSAs following surgery or radiation.

We continue to examine many promising, cutting-edge immunotherapies through our robust clinical trial program. Click the below links to learn more about eligibility and open clinical trials across the spectrum of GU cancers:

Open Immunotherapy-Based Clinical Trials

Prostate Cancer

Kidney, Bladder and Urothelial Cancers

To search our complete list of our open clinical trials, click here.

“Moonshots” and More: How We’re Developing Personal Cancer “Cures” through Precision Medicine

In President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address, he emphasized the “moonshot” need to cure cancer. At Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, we are actively working towards that goal.

420_Dr. David Nanus with patient Irene Price 8 x 12
Irene Price and Dr. David Nanus, Chief, Hematology and Medical Oncology at Weill Cornell Medicine

Through our use of gene sequencing and precision medicine, we are transforming the way cancer is characterized and treated. Using a multidisciplinary approach and the EXaCT-1 test, here at the Weill Cornell Genitourinary (GU) Oncology Program, we are able to sequence the genes of advanced stage cancer patients. We can then narrowly tailor personalized treatment regimens based on the genetic makeup of a patient’s tumor which indicates whether a cancer is likely to respond to a particular treatment therapy.

Irene Price came to Dr. David Nanus, Chief of the Division of Hematology and Medical Oncology, with metastatic bladder cancer, and had more than 20,000 genes sequenced with the EXaCT-1 test. Dr. Nanus and his colleagues determined that the reason she wasn’t responding to prior treatment rested in a specific genetic mutation within her tumor. As a result, the team was able to prescribe a personalized treatment regimen – one more often used in the treatment of breast cancer.

The results were life changing. It caused her cancer to completely disappear. According to Price, “I’ve had college graduations that I wouldn’t have had, weddings that I wouldn’t have had, and the birth of great grandchildren that I wouldn’t have had.”

Learn more about our personalized approach to cancer care in a two-part series on NY1:

Part 1: “Gene Sequencing Effort Helps Pinpoint Cancer Treatments”

Part 2: “Tailored Cancer Treatments Fit Doctors’ New Approach”


To make an appointment with one of our clinicians, please call 646-962-2072.