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Roswell Park, University of Rochester to Study Immunotherapy in Cancer Patients of African Ancestry

NEW YORK – Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and the University of Rochester Wilmot Cancer Institute on Tuesday announced a joint research partnership to study the effects of immune checkpoint inhibitors in cancer patients of African ancestry, including molecular characteristics behind how Black and white patients respond to treatment.

Through the study, dubbed DiRECT, researchers at the Buffalo- and Rochester, New York-based institutions seek to shed light on the "360-degree picture" of Black patients who receive immune checkpoint inhibitors such as pembrolizumab (Merck's Keytruda) or nivolumab (Bristol Myers Squibb's Opdivo), among other agents. Through data collection from roughly 600 Black patients and 1,200 white patients of European ancestry who received immunotherapy for cancer, the researchers will investigate patients' outcomes and side effects, and will conduct genetic analyses to home in on the percent of African ancestry in each Black patient.

According to Song Yao of Roswell Park, one of the study's principal investigators, the study will include analyses of the different types of T cells more prevalent in Black patients, which may influence immunotherapy response.

"Because Black cancer patients tend to have a prevalence of … 'exhausted,' nonfunctional T cells, we realized they may be more likely to do well on immune checkpoint inhibitors, which target the exhausted T cells to revive them and restore their ability to fight cancer cells," Yao said in a statement. "But we can't know this without further study, and this new project will tackle that knowledge gap in a large and diverse patient population."

In addition to molecular differences, researchers will consider the role of factors such as discrimination and treatment access. The study is supported by a $2.08 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, with the possibility of additional funding thereafter.