VHIO´s Enriqueta Felip receives Merck´s Grant for Oncology Innovation for novel blood-based approach towards more precisely guiding treatment with immunotherapy

Officially announced during this month´s annual Congress of the European Society of Medical Oncology (ESMO), 07 – 11 October in Copenhagen, Denmark, Enriqueta Felip, Principal Investigator of VHIO´s Thoracic Tumors & Head and Neck Cancer Group, and Head of the Thoracic Tumors Unit, the Medical Oncology Department of the Vall d´Hebron University Hospital (HUVH), was awarded a third of Merck´s 2016 Grant for Oncology Innovation Award (GOI), totaling at 1 million EUR, along with the other two co-recipients Alberto Bardelli from the University of Torino, Italy, and Dongxu Liu, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand.

Now in its third annual edition, the GOI is an initiative powered by Merck to identify and fuel innovative projects aimed at advancing more precise therapies against solid tumors with selection criteria centering on and around the potential relevance to patient care, the innovative nature of each proposal, possible scientific impact, feasibility and relevance for personalized therapy. In 2016 the call drew a total of 405 scientifically diverse applications spanning 49 countries across the globe.

Enriqueta´s project entitled New technologies for new treatments: liquid biopsy meets immunotherapy, promises a novel approach aimed at better guiding the selection of immune checkpoint inhibitors for the treatment of patients with non-small lung cancer (NSCLC). More specifically, Enriqueta´s team, in collaboration with VHIO´s Cancer Genomics Group, led by Ana Vivancos, as well as Enric Carcereny and Teresa Morán at the Catalan Institute of Oncology´s (ICO) Service of the German Trias I Pujol Hospital (Badalona, Barcelona), will characterize blood-based tumor-educate platelets (TEPS) for the evaluation of patients treated with immune checkpoint inhibitors using novel sequencing technologies.

Over recent years anti-PD-1/anti-PD-L1 strategies have shown great promise for patients with NSCLC whereby patients whose tumors expressed PD-L1, established by immunohistochemistry, had better outcomes with these treatments than those who had PD-L1-negative tumors. Employing PD-L1 expression as an approach to select therapy with checkpoint inhibitors is not without its limitations. Enriqueta and her team, in their quest to find new diagnostic tools and open up avenues for better characterization of disease, are set to explore Platelet RNA as an easily accessible liquid biopsy technology that may more accurately and effectively guide immunotherapeutic strategies directed against NSCLC.

“Blood-based tests across many cancers are showing increasing promise as a more accurate means of evaluating tumors as well as characterizing and tracking cancer development and progression. Tumor-educated platelets – TEPs, are among the most promising liquid biopsy since they can carry tumor-related expression profiles and gene signatures associated with the immune system”, observes Eriqueta Felip, co-recipient of this year´s GOI Grant.

“We aim to characterize the TEPs of our patients treated with immune checkpoint inhibitors, and then correlate these results with the expression profile of tumor RNA samples using PD-L1 expression as standard. We then hope to ultimately identify which patients stand to benefit most from immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy. It is thanks to Merck´s generosity and tremendous backing of our research that we will be able to pursue this essential project and in so doing, ultimately demonstrate its relevance in rendering these novel immune-based therapies more precise for an increasing number of patients,”
she concludes.

To discover more about Merck´s Grant for Oncology Innovation (GOI) please visit: www.grantforonologyinnovation.org.

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