Dr. Anusha Kalbasi, assistant professor of radiation oncology in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, is one of four recipients to be named a 2020 Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator by the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

The $600,000 award supports Kalbasi’s work investigating a new immunotherapy treatment using chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells to treat patients with melanoma, a dangerous form of skin cancer, and other cancers whose tumors express a protein called IL13Ra2. About one third of patients with melanoma would be eligible for this therapy.

Kalbasi, who is a member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, will lead a phase 1 clinical trial to test the immunotherapy. The study is a collaboration with the team at City of Hope, led by Dr. Christine Brown, who originally developed the IL13Ra2 CAR T cells for the treatment of glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor.

The treatment starts by collecting the patient’s immune cells, then engineering them with the capacity to identify tumor cells that express the IL13Ra2 protein. Where previous studies at City of Hope directly injected these CAR T cells into the brain, Kalbasi’s study will be the first to infuse these CAR T cells into the blood to attack tumor cells throughout the person’s body.

This clinical trial, which has also received funding from the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy and the Melanoma Research Alliance, may also help offer insights on how CAR T therapy overcomes tumor resistance mechanisms to treat patients with metastatic melanoma.

“Genetically engineered T cell-based immunotherapy is an exciting approach that has already cured patients with some types of blood cancers, but so far success in solid tumors has been out of reach,” Kalbasi said. “We are excited about the potential of this clinical trial and the cross-town collaboration between UCLA and City of Hope. I am thankful for the guidance of my mentors Drs. Antoni Ribas and Christine Brown, and hopeful that this will lead to another treatment option for patients.”