Making history every day

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February 28, 2019
Mother Laughing with her Child

What drives our clinicians and scientists to set audacious goals, take chances and reach beyond what’s expected? And what brings thousands of patients from all over the world to visit our specialists and participate in clinical trials?

The same thing that inspired more than 10,000 donors to contribute $1 billion to the Knight Cancer Challenge: Hope.

Hope in a future where our ability to detect and treat cancer outmatches its ability to take lives.

We are proud to share a few recent examples of the people, programs and scientific achievements that fuel our optimism.

"When Phil and Penny Knight issued their historic $1 billion fundraising challenge, they helped us launch a new era at the Knight Cancer Institute. That was just the beginning. From recruiting a world-class team, to developing better treatments and building the first large-scale early detection program, together, we are boldly working toward a world free from the burden of cancer.


Because of the generosity and commitment of our generous supporters, we are making exciting progress against this disease everyday. And I want to say thank you." –Brian Druker, MD, director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, JELD-WEN Chair of Leukemia Research


Gordon Mills and Zahi Mitri


One of the Knight Cancer Institute’s most promising new cancer-fighting technologies is a program called SMMART (Serial Measurement of Molecular and Architectural Responses to Treatment), an approach that makes it possible to study each patient’s tumor in detail, track how cancer cells respond to treatment, and use the information to select combinations of drugs tailored for the individual.

Researchers have built a new kind of treatment platform to find combinations of drugs to use, like a one-two punch, to stop tumors before they can adapt and become drug-resistant. Their goal is to make treatment more effective, long-lasting and tolerable for people with cancer.

SMMART’s real-time, adaptive approach is already yielding exceptional results in patients with metastatic breast cancer, the most dangerous type of breast cancer.

“There is really nothing other than chemotherapy now,” says Zahi Mitri, MD, an assistant professor of medicine in the OHSU School of Medicine and leader of the SMMART trial against metastatic, triple-negative breast cancer.

In the pilot SMMART study, 70 percent of participants had an exceptional response to their individualized drug combinations. Gordon Mills, director of precision oncology, calls this result mind-boggling: “A response rate of 70 percent is unheard of in this type of breast cancer.” Mills, recently awarded the Wayne and Julie Drinkward Endowed Chair in Precision Oncology, is spearheading several more such efforts.

On the strength of the early findings, the Knight Cancer Institute plans to expand the program to support patients with leukemia and advanced prostate and pancreatic cancers.



OHSU Team Looking at Data Visualization


An OHSU-led effort has resulted in the largest cancer dataset of its kind for acute myeloid leukemia.

The specific clinical information collected — including how tumor cells from 409 of the samples responded to 122 different targeted therapies — sets this study apart from other datasets that have been published to date, according to study co-first author Jeff Tyner, PhD, a Knight Institute researcher and associate professor of cell, developmental and cancer biology in the OHSU School of Medicine.

“When you have clinical information that is well integrated with research data, you can ask more questions of the data,” he says. “Let’s say a physician sees an AML patient with a particular gene mutation. With the lab screening information we have, our dataset can be useful to see if that particular gene mutation corresponds with certain drug sensitivities. We believe this dataset will help researchers and physicians solve those specific kinds of questions more easily.”

What’s more, the study’s co-corresponding author, Shannon McWeeney, PhD, and her team developed a new data visualization platform for the huge dataset, allowing researchers to better ask questions and pursue answers. McWeeney is a researcher at the Knight and head of bioinformatics and computational biology in the OHSU School of Medicine.

This project was a collaborative multi-institution effort and part of the Beat AML initiative.



Richard Maziarz


The Knight Cancer Institute is seeing remarkably positive results testing a new immunotherapy treatment for diffuse large B-cell lymphoma called CAR T-cell therapy. CAR stands for “chimeric antigen receptor” and the treatment is a form of immunotherapy in which the patient’s immune system T cells are collected, genetically engineered to target cancer cells, then infused back into the patient.

New clinical trial research has demonstrated ongoing promising results for patients with this specific kind of lymphoma. Richard Maziarz, the institute's medical director of the adult blood and marrow stem cell transplant and cellular therapy program, co-led the Phase II study: “This study is the first to outline long-term results for these lymphoma patients, and we’re seeing that these responses can be sustained,” says Maziarz.

“This approach appears to offer a single treatment that can relieve symptoms and save lives for people who had otherwise faced a very poor prognosis,” he says.

This is the first global study to examine a CAR-T therapy exclusively in people with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. Research was conducted at 27 treatment sites spanning 10 countries across North America, Europe, Australia and Asia.

The Knight was an early adopter and one of a handful of certified treatment centers in the nation to offer this therapy to patients with this form of lymphoma.

Last year, OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital was the first hospital in the Pacific Northwest to offer this treatment to pediatric and young adult patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.



Asian Health & Service Center


The Knight Cancer Institute Community Partnership Program has now distributed more than $2 million to community-based cancer prevention, screening and survivorship programs in all 36 counties in Oregon. The funded projects help people coping with a diverse range of cancer types in communities across the state, from Coos Bay to Umatilla.

As one example, the Asian Health & Service Center received a new grant to help further the center’s goal to increase culturally and linguistically appropriate cancer resources, educational materials, and support services available to the Asian communities in Oregon.

“I don’t know how many times my patients have asked me, ‘Why do I have cancer?’ It happens to our neighbors, to our friends, to our families and even to ourselves. Sickness has no color, it has no religion. Sickness does not discriminate,” said Erik Szeto, founder and chairman of the board at the Asian Health & Service Center. “The only fairness to this unfairness is that we are given a choice, a choice to respond. [T]his grant from the Knight Cancer Institute’s Community Partnership Program will help us support the Asian communities in Oregon in their fight against cancer.”



OHSU Knight Cancer Research Building


The Knight opened its state-of-the-art cancer research facility on Portland’s South Waterfront in September 2018. The facility houses the Cancer Early Detection Advanced Research Center (CEDAR), a research powerhouse dedicated to finding new ways to detect and treat cancer early, before it becomes lethal. CEDAR continues to build its team, and has already recruited more than 50 new faculty from multiple backgrounds. Over the next two years CEDAR plans to increase its staff by 46 percent.

View a photo gallery of the new OHSU Knight Cancer Research Building

Hear from Bree Mitchell, Ph.D., associate director of CEDAR

Read about three young researchers who work in the new research building, all focused on how immunotherapy and precision therapies can transform cancer science

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