Increased understanding of the genetic mutations that drive non-small cell lung cancer has led to new, effective treatments in recent years.
Yet when a patient is diagnosed with an alteration in the ALK gene, a major concern is their cancer may become resistant to standard therapy over time. If that happens, which drug or combination of drugs will they turn to?
A $7.6 million gift from Judith L. Tam and the Richard Tam Foundation has launched an accelerated research initiative at U-M’s Rogel Cancer Center to answer those questions — and to identify biological pathways that can be targeted with new approaches to treatment.
About 100,000 people globally are diagnosed each year with ALK-positive lung cancer, which has a high risk of spreading to other parts of the body.
“We are very impressed with the talented, multidisciplinary team that the Rogel Cancer Center has brought together to take on this problem,” said Judith L. Tam, president of the Richard Tam Foundation. “We are grateful that they are partnering with us and with experts from across the country to pursue the best possible paths forward.”
U-M researchers have launched a three-pronged initiative:
- Testing patient tissue to determine how each person’s cancer will respond to different therapies.
- Studying the earliest events in disease progression so it can be detected and therapy can be adjusted accordingly.
- Developing new treatments.
“We are leveraging techniques we have used to advance precision health for breast and other cancers to help patients with ALK-positive lung cancer,” said Sofia D. Merajver, the GreaterGood Breast Cancer Research Professor, professor of internal medicine and director of the Breast and Ovarian Cancer Risk Evaluation Program at Michigan Medicine, and professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health.
As lead investigator for the initiative, Merajver has brought together clinical and scientific experts in cancer metastases, thoracic oncology, thoracic surgery, genetics, molecular pharmacology, cell biology, pathology, organoid development, data science and more.
She also has assembled an advisory board that includes representation from a patient advocacy organization and world-renowned lung cancer experts.
“I believe this team can lead the charge toward transformative new therapies for ALK-positive lung cancer, and I am honored to be a member of the advisory board for this effort,” said Alice Shaw, global head of translational clinical oncology at Novartis. A pioneer in the field, she has been working on therapies for ALK-positive lung cancer since 2007.
Shirish Gadgeel, a former U-M faculty member who now leads the Division of Hematology and Oncology at Henry Ford Health System, will also serve on the advisory board and partner with the U-M team.
“Working together will give us a larger pool of patients to engage with this research,” he said. “We have talked about the potential for such an initiative many times, and this remarkable gift is enabling us to bring it to reality.”
“These research projects, as well as the collaborative infrastructure that this gift has enabled us to create, uniquely positions the University of Michigan and the Rogel Cancer Center for new discoveries and translational and clinical innovations that have potential to improve outcomes and quality of life for ALK-positive lung cancer patients — and perhaps as well patients affected by other cancer types,” said Eric Fearon, director of the Rogel Cancer Center.
“The best hope for patients to stay alive and to feel well is successful research,” said Colin Barton, an ALK-positive cancer patient who serves on the board of directors and is a member of the support group community at ALK Positive Inc., a nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the life expectancy and quality of life for ALK-positive cancer patients worldwide. He will advise the U-M team.
“This visionary gift and the depth of knowledge that has been assembled will bring genuine hope to me and everyone diagnosed with ALK-positive cancer, now and in the future.”
The Tam Foundation also supports Precision Health-related work and is a lead funding partner of the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Program at U-M.