Researcher Studies the Role of Immunotherapy in Patients with Head and Neck Cancer
Study could lead to new treatment protocols

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Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) is the most common cancer originating in the nasopharynx, the area behind the nose where the nasal passages and auditory tubes join the remainder of the upper respiratory tract. It is known that the majority of cases are associated with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), one of the most common human viruses, most notably known as the cause of mono. While not continuing to make a person sick, once contracted, EBV always lives in a person’s body. In some cases, EBV can lead to cancers like NPC or lymphoma. Chrystal Louis, MD a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine plans to study alternative ways to treat NPC cases caused by EBV, in order to one day try to reduce treatment side effects.

Most commonly found in pediatric patients between 10 -17 years old, NPC often goes undiagnosed until it reaches an advanced stage and has spread to the lymph nodes. Due to its location, surgical removal is not an effective treatment option, so doctors rely on high doses of radiation and chemotherapy. Because the high-dose radiation treatments are to the face and neck, the side effects of current treatment can leave patients with long term affects such as hearing loss, dental issues, and chronic dry mouth.

Dr. Louis plans to study the effectiveness of adding immunotherapy to the current chemotherapy and radiation therapy, such that if successful, the dose of radiation can be reduced in the future. Immunotherapy is a treatment option that allows doctors to use the body’s own immune system to help fight disease. Dr. Louis and the research group at Baylor College study different ways to engineer (or modify) T-cells, a major component of the body’s immune system, to recognize and attack viruses and tumors. This form of immunotherapy is being successfully used for patients who have undergone bone marrow transplants for various reasons, including cancer, has been proven to treat infections caused by EBV and other viruses, and used to treat patients with solid tumors.

  • Chrystal Louis, MD, MPH
  • Baylor College of Medicine

Dr. Louis hypothesizes that since T cell immunotherapy has been helpful in treating patients that have a recurrence of their NPC caused by EBV, that it should also be helpful for children if used when they are first diagnosed. To do this, Dr. Louis has developed a Phase II clinical study to evaluate the feasibility of adding immunotherapy to the current treatment protocol for pediatric patients with EBV positive NPC treated at different locations around the United States. Dr. Louis will also study how patients with newly diagnosed NPC react to chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy and compare the location of relapse, 3-year disease free, and overall survival rates after treatment to those patients who do not receive immunotherapy. Dr. Louis’s goal is to deliver new, non-toxic, treatment options to NPC patients who need it most.

Dr. Louis is funded through CureSearch’s Young Investigator Program for two years. CureSearch is excited to provide updates to Dr. Louis’s research.

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