Dr. Deepak Saxena and Dr. Xin Li of the New York University (NYU) College of Dentistry have received a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program grant from the National Cancer Institute to create and test probiotics that alter the gut microbiome to see if they can enhance the efficacy of immunotherapy in treating pancreatic cancer.
The $400,000, one-year award is the second STTR grant awarded to NYU Dentistry-based startup company Periomics Care, founded by Saxena and Li.
Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDA) is the most common form of pancreatic cancer and has a five-year survival rate of 7%. Despite the recent success of checkpoint inhibitors, which is a type of immunotherapy, in treating melanoma and lung cancer, patients with PDA have not had the same clinical benefit, NYU said.
In a 2018 study and a 2019 study, researchers including Saxena and Li reported that the makeup of bacteria and fungi in the gut, or microbiome, determines the speed of PDA tumor growth and that using antibiotics could slow cancer growth and increase the efficacy of immunotherapy.
“We found that PDA is associated with a distinct, stage-specific gut and pancreatic microbiome, and it drives disease progression by inducing intratumoral immune suppression,” said Saxena, professor of molecular pathobiology and director of Periomics Care.
With the grant, the researchers said they will develop and test a probiotic to restore the microbiome. Through their previous work on the microbiome and PDA, they have created a cocktail of eight strains of bacteria and fungi that help maintain gut homeostasis. The formulation will be tested on animal models of PDA to determine if probiotics and/or antibiotics can make immunotherapy more effective.
“Findings from this first phase will enable us to design clinical trials with other partners to test microbiome-directed interventions to improve checkpoint-based immunotherapy in PDA,” said Li, associate professor of molecular pathobiology. “We believe that modulating the gut microbiome will have dramatic implications for using immunotherapies for pancreatic cancer treatment.”