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Focused Ultrasound Foundation teams up on melanoma brain metastases research

Press releases may be edited for formatting or style
20 August 2015 – The Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA) and Cancer Research Institute (CRI) are collaborating with the Foundation to fund a new preclinical research project using focused ultrasound to enhance immunotherapy for melanoma brain metastases.

“It is the Foundation’s belief that focused ultrasound has significant untapped potential in the field of cancer immunotherapy,” said Jessica Foley, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer. “We are dedicated to advancing this work to develop more effective therapies for patients living with melanoma and other types of cancer.”

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Although significant advances have been made in treating melanoma with immunotherapy, brain metastases remain very difficult to treat. This hurdle is related to the relationship between the brain, the tumor metastases, and an immune system that limits immune cell and antibody access.

“Immunotherapy has shown significant promise for some patients with advanced melanoma, and we hope to expand our understanding and use of immunotherapy to impact all patients – including those with cancer that has spread to the brain,” says Louise Perkins, PhD, Chief Science Officer at MRA. “We are pleased to partner with the Cancer Research Institute and the Focused Ultrasound Foundation to support exploring new delivery strategies that can be translated to the clinic and benefit patients.”

Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, PhD, the CEO and Director of Scientific Affairs at CRI, added, “Cutting-edge investigation centering on focused ultrasound in combination with immunotherapy is an innovative approach, which, we hope, will ultimately benefit patients with any type of cancer that has spread to the brain.”

University of Virginia immunologist Timothy Bullock, PhD, Biomedical Engineering Professor Richard Price, PhD, and Medical Physicist, G. Wilson Miller, PhD, are teaming together to study the use of focused ultrasound in conjunction with microbubbles to increase the natural immune response to tumors in the brain. “Building on promising early research, we hope to demonstrate that the application of focused ultrasound combined with microbubbles to the tumor will modify the tumor in a manner that will not only help to promote the natural immune response to tumors in the brain, but will also enable us to temporarily open up the blood-brain barrier to improve the delivery of leading-edge immunotherapies directly to tumors,” says Principal Investigator Bullock.

Access to the brain metastases by drugs and immune cells is restrained by the blood-brain barrier (BBB), a protective layer of blood vessels lining the brain that limits most substances from entering the surrounding brain tissue. In the study, Dr. Bullock and the team will use focused ultrasound waves to vibrate gas-filled microbubbles that temporarily open the BBB and induce damage to the tumor microenvironment. This could alert the immune system, recruiting one’s own cells to fight the tumor. Furthermore, the research team will then determine whether brain metastases can be further treated by delivering leading edge immunotherapies through the opened BBB that increase the activation, survival and function of tumor-killing immune cells. The team believes that the immune response triggered by the application of focused ultrasound to the tumor microenvironment may synergize with the effect of the immunotherapy to produce a more robust response in the brain.

Immunotherapy is one of the Foundation's priority areas of interest. "Preliminary work suggests that focused ultrasound could play a significant role in enhancing cancer immunotherapy," said Foley. "The Foundation is dedicating significant resources toward new studies in this exciting area. Our plan is to accelerate the field by facilitating multidisciplinary collaboration and increasing funding opportunities."

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