December wouldn’t be complete without a recap of the year’s most important scientific advances in cancer. Memorial Sloan Kettering scientists published hundreds of studies this past year and weighed in as experts on many others. Below are some of the year’s highlights.
1. CAR T Cells to the Finish Line
In January, we learned the final results of the longest-running CAR T cell study for people with cancer. Led by MSK medical oncologist Jae Park, the study found that adults with relapsed acute lymphoblastic leukemia who had a minimal amount of disease at the time of CAR therapy lived significantly longer and had fewer side effects than those who had more substantial disease. About 50% of people in the low-disease category were still alive five years after CAR therapy.
2. First Tissue-Agnostic Drug
The US Food and Drug Administration approved larotrectinib (Vitrakvi®) as a treatment for people with a particular genetic abnormality called a TRK fusion. This is the first time that a targeted drug was approved on the basis of a genetic mutation rather than where the cancer originated. MSK’s David Hyman, Alexander Drilon, and Neerav Shukla played key roles in the drug’s testing.
3. New Hope for Brain Tumors
A drug delivery method called convection-enhanced delivery was deemed safe for children with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma. The technique relies on the extended release of medication (over 12 hours) directly into the brain through a tube, bypassing the blood-brain barrier. Mark Souweidane, a pediatric neurosurgeon at MSK and Weill Cornell Medicine, led a phase I study.
4. Sparing Women Unnecessary Chemotherapy
Women with intermediate-risk estrogen receptor–positive breast cancer learned that they could safely avoid having the chemotherapy that’s typically used to prevent the cancer from coming back. A large study, led by researchers at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, provided clear evidence that women with intermediate-risk cancer did equally well with hormonal therapy alone. MSK’s Larry Norton weighed in on the implications of the study.
5. Poop Therapy
MSK researchers showed that a fecal transplant can restore the health-promoting bacteria that are lost during a bone marrow transplant (BMT). The results pave the way for treatments that protect against the dangerous complications of a BMT that result from a damaged gut microbiota.
6. The Skinny on Fat
The relationship between body fat and cancer risk became better defined this year. MSK medical oncologist Neil Iyengar and colleagues published a paper in JAMA Oncology showing that postmenopausal women with a normal body mass index (BMI) but a high level of body fat had twice of the risk of developing breast cancer than those with a low level of body fat. The results call into question the use of BMI as a way to determine a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
Richard White, an MSK melanoma specialist and researcher, found that the fat in adipose tissue provides rich fuel for melanoma cells. The fat makes the cancer more aggressive and more likely to spread — at least in zebrafish.
7. A New Organelle
SKI’s Weirui Ma and Christine Mayr delighted cell biologists this year with their discovery of a new organelle involved in protein sorting. They call it the TIGER domain.
8. The Perks of Genetic Instability
Samuel Bakhoum, a radiation oncologist at MSK, and his colleagues at Weill Cornell Medicine discovered that cancer cells’ genetic instability helps them mimic immune cells to avoid destruction. These “escape artists” pull a fast one on the body’s defenses so they can spread to other locations.
9. 45,000 Cells — One at a Time
SKI computational biologist Dana Pe’er and immunologist Alexander Rudensky tag-teamed on a massive study, published in Cell, that identified the gene expression patterns of more than 45,000 individual immune cells in breast tumors. They used a method called single-cell ribonucleic acid sequencing. The findings set the stage for more individualized treatments.
10. A Nobel Prize!
Immunologist James Allison won a Nobel prize for his discovery of checkpoint blockade as a treatment for cancer. Dr. Allison was Chair of the Immunology Program at SKI from 2004 to 2011. During his tenure, he worked with researchers at MSK to shepherd that drug, now called ipilimumab (Yervoy®), through testing and ultimately to the FDA’s approval.