Coalition of Cancer and Diabetes-Focused Nonprofits Addresses Rare Side Effect of Cancer Treatments

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A coalition of researchers from leading cancer immunotherapy and diabetes research organizations are teaming up to gain a greater understanding of why a small percentage of patients treated with checkpoint inhibitors can develop an autoimmune disease similar to Type 1 diabetes.

The use of checkpoint inhibitors such as Merck's Keytruda and Opdivo from Bristol-Myers Squibb has become a go-to treatment in many cancer. However, researchers have discovered that some patients treated with immunotherapy can develop autoimmune disorders, including a type of diabetes. Approximately 1% of patients treated with checkpoint inhibitors can develop a kind of insulin-dependent diabetes that appears similar to type 1 diabetes. Data supporting this research has been published in the journal Diabetes.

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In order to gain a greater understanding of this occurrence, three nonprofit organizations, the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, diabetes research organization JDRF and The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust formed a collaborative research agreement to gain a greater understanding of how this happens and identify the causes. Each of the three nonprofits is contributing $10 million over a three-year period to fund the autoimmunity research. The collaboration between the three groups marks the first time that researchers will explore the intersection between these two types of chronic diseases.

Jeffrey Bluestone, chief executive officer of the Parker Institute, said the use of checkpoint inhibitors have “changed the face of cancer therapy” and have proven themselves to be invaluable tools in treating patients, many of whom had few options. However, Bluestone noted that in some rare cases, these incidents of the development of insulin-dependent diabetes occur and no one really understands why.

“In putting together this research initiative, we hope to answer key questions that will help us predict and prevent autoimmunity following immunotherapy treatment in the future,” Bluestone said in a statement. “This is of increasing importance as more patients are being treated with checkpoint inhibitors and other immunotherapies.”

There are approximately 1.25 million people in the United States who have been diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes. The autoimmune disease occurs when the insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells are mistakenly destroyed by the body’s immune system. As a result, a person’s pancreas stops producing insulin, the hormone that controls blood-sugar levels. The researchers with the three nonprofit organizations hope to not only shed light on why that small percentage of checkpoint inhibitor patients develops this but also hopes the collaboration will shed light on the causes of Type 1 diabetes in the broader population.

“We know little about the causes of type 1 diabetes in otherwise healthy children and adults. We believe that this research may reveal profound discoveries relevant to all forms of type 1 diabetes, potentially leading to new biomarkers for detection and treatment,” Ben Williams, Helmsley Charitable Trust T1D program officer said in a statement.

The collaboration between the three groups also dovetails with additional autoimmunity research projects at the Parker Institute and JDRF’s immunology research to stop autoimmune attacks that target insulin-producing beta cells, the groups said in their announcement.

Aaron Kowalski, president and CEO of JDRF, said the collaboration aims to accomplish a feat never before achieved, “permanently turning off an autoimmune response in humans.”

“Investing in this research will help us better understand, in real time, how type 1 diabetes develops and potentially disable the immune system so that disease progression never happens,” Kowalski said.

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