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Ovarian Research

The Penn Ovarian Cancer Research Center

About the Advanced Therapeutics Program

In spite of incremental improvements in response rates with the introduction of cisplatin (CDDP), a chemotherapy drug containing platinum; taxanes, anticancer drugs that inhibit cancer cell growth by stopping cell division (e.g. Taxol); and radical surgery, presently, up to 50 percent of patients with advanced ovarian cancer experience complete response to first line chemotherapy. The remaining patients are resistant to platinum or Taxol and become rapidly resistant to all additional available drugs.

Even following complete response, the majority of patients will recur and eventually become resistant to all available chemotherapies. As a result, the mortality from ovarian carcinoma has not changed over the past four decades and half of the patients with advanced ovarian cancer will die within two to three years from diagnosis. It is obvious that alternative therapies are direly needed in ovarian cancer.

Research Laboratory Activities

The research laboratory activities of the Advanced Therapeutics Program focus on developing innovative therapies for ovarian cancer, with emphasis on immune and biological therapies. Dr. Coukos' and Carl June, MD's laboratories have joined forces to develop immune therapy for ovarian cancer including dendritic cell therapeutic vaccines as well as lymphocyte adoptive therapy.

Lymphocyte therapy uses lymphocytes recovered from the patient's tumor or blood, which are manipulated in the laboratory to acquire the ability to recognize and kill a tumor, expanded to huge numbers, and then re-infused to the patient. This approach is expected to bring major contributions to ovarian cancer and it is based on the discovery in Dr. Coukos' lab that ovarian cancer is immunogenic, meaning it can be recognized and attacked by lymphocytes

Additional investigators are working towards developing novel therapeutic approaches in ovarian cancer. Dr. Jerry Glickson is engineering chemotherapy-loaded nanoparticles that target specifically ovarian cancer cells, in order to develop new ways to deliver chemotherapy to tumors with increased efficacy and reduced toxicity. Drs. Gimotty and Coukos are working to identify tumor markers that will enable them to select patients for individualized therapy.

Clinical Activities

The clinical activities of the Advanced Therapeutics Program conduct clinical trials to test novel therapies emerging from the laboratory. The facilities for the new clinical program will be housed in the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, expected to open in 2008.

Cellular therapeutics are prepared at the Penn Cell and Vaccine Production Facility, directed by Bruce Levine, MD. Therapies expected to go to the clinic within 12 to 24 months include lymphocytes recovered from tumors and processed in the laboratory to develop potent tumor-killer cells; lymphocytes modified with gene therapy approaches to recognize and kill tumors and potent tumor vaccines.

Clinical investigators at Penn are also testing the latest in chemotherapy and targeted molecular therapy for ovarian cancer. Penn Gynecologic Oncology is a member of the Phase I/II program of the Gynecologic Oncology Group, a national organization running clinical trials in ovarian cancer. The Ovarian Cancer Center tests new chemotherapy drug compounds with promising activity in ovarian cancer. Furthermore, the Developmental Therapeutics Program, directed by Peter J. O'Dwyer, MD, works to test the effectiveness of new drugs in treating cancer. Through clinical trials, the team is testing novel compounds in ovarian cancer, including combinations of drugs that shut off the blood supply to tumors with chemotherapy at a dosage that patients can tolerate.