A pediatric cancer researcher at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center has been honored for groundbreaking immunotherapy studies. Asha Pillai, M.D., a specialist in pediatric hematology-oncology, was named “Cancer Researcher of the Year” by the Woman’s Cancer Association (WCA) of the University of Miami at its “Dancing for a Cure” Gala.
“Our goal is to develop and optimize immunotherapy with targeted invariant NKT cells (iNKT cells),” said Pillai, who is also associate professor of pediatrics and microbiology and immunology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “We have been studying these disease-fighting T-cells for several years in mouse models. Based on our preliminary results with human NKT cells, optimizing targeting of these cells to tumors shows much promise for translation to clinical care.”
Last year, Pillai and her Sylvester co-investigator, Noriyuki Kasahara, M.D., Ph.D., professor of cell biology and pathology, received a grant from the WCA in the name of leukemia patient Jack Lombardo to support their work in improving pediatric immunotherapy. Both Jack and his mother, Kay Lombardo, attended the March 10 WCA gala, and thanked Pillai for her work.
Pillai has been studying the role of T-cells in the body’s immune system for more than 20 years. Before joining Sylvester in 2016, she found that NKT cells can prevent fatal immune reactions after bone marrow transplants used to treat leukemia and other cancers of the blood. She also developed a protocol to expand and concentrate the NKT cells so they could support immunotherapy treatment strategies in pediatric cancer patients.
Now, Pillai and Kasahara are using the WCA grant to study if certain protein molecules in the NKT cells can be used to target the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) in cancer cells. “We believe NKT-based immunotherapy is a promising approach to killing cancer cells in untreated or newly diagnosed patients before, during, or after bone marrow transplants,” Pillai said.
Since its inception in the 1950s, the WCA has donated more than $13.5 million for cancer research. The WCA has also provided funds for the Pediatric Palliative Care Program and established the bereavement room for families of pediatric cancer patients.
“In 2017, we made a commitment to provide $1 million to Sylvester within four years in support of UM’s mission to seek the National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation,” said Lourdes Beltran, WCA president. “We have met that commitment for 2017 and will go beyond our goal for 2018.”