In the latest blog post, we chatted with the University of Virginia’s Tim Bullock, Ph.D., a tumor immunologist in the Pathology Department and MRA-funded investigator. Read on to learn what he has to say about melanoma research and prevention efforts.
Can you explain a bit about your research?
I received an Academic Industry Award from MRA, which was a fantastic segue from the more basic/translational tumor immunology we were well-versed in to getting me more exposed to (and appreciative of) the challenges and opportunities that are presented in clinical tumor immunology. It really helped establish our lab in truly translational research.
The grant led us to begin to understand what goes wrong with T cells in patients with melanoma. We’re conducting research now to look at the transcriptional basis of what’s wrong with tumor infiltrating T cells, looking at the genes that control T cell function, and what signals from the tumor microenvironment influence the expression of these genes. We’re trying to understand if we can identify critical differences in genes in T cells that are failing to control tumors compared to those that either control tumors or infections, so that once we understand them, they could either be biomarkers for effective anti PD-1 therapies or provide opportunities to complement anti-PD1 therapy.
We take a collaborative approach with investigators at UVA, so I value working with clinicians and researchers from a variety of backgrounds. We work in teams to look at how targeted therapies and more traditional chemotherapies affect newer immunotherapies to understand the cumulative effects of these treatments. The hope is that this will help us identifying rational combinations of tumor-targeting therapies that will work well with immunotherapies.
Can you explain how your research is helping making a difference for patients?
Our most recent funding, as an Established Investigator, uses a fairly novel technology called focused ultrasound. It’s a way of delivering acoustic energy, as opposed to the more traditional radiation, into tumors, with the intent of causing damage to the tumor that the immune system can respond to. It’s in early stages yet, so we need to understand how innate and adaptive immunity, and the tumor, respond to this type of “insult.” This is focusing specifically on melanoma brain metastases as there is such an unmet need in this patient population. We’re trying to answer important questions, like:
- Can we use it to treat brain metastases (similarly to how it’s being used to treat Essential Tremors and patients with Parkinson’s Disease)?
- How does the brain’s immune components respond?
- Can we integrate this technology with immunotherapy?
There are a lot of unanswered questions, but our goal is to get it to patients as soon as possible. We’re integrating our work with biomedical engineers and have funded this collaboratively because many people see the potential for focused ultrasound. If efficacy is the same as radiation, this technology could provide a new approach meet the challenge of these poorly served patients.
How has MRA funding helped your work?
Each stage of my career, MRA has been there. The Young Investigator Award helped get my lab up and running. And the continued support through Academic-Industry Partnership and Established Investigator awards have helped sustain my work.
The funding has been important, but I also value the collaborative network that MRA has fostered. The Scientific Retreat is a relaxed setting to chat about real challenges and new opportunities.
MRA has a real enthusiasm for thinking outside the envelope. MRA provides the building blocks and foundation to get important research moving forward. MRA is notorious for that and it’s certainly had an impact on my career.
What do you hope to see more of in the future of melanoma research?
The future is understanding how to integrate these amazing therapies we have now. We’re trying to understand each patient’s disease to select the appropriate combination of therapies to treat them. We can almost come up with a “prescription” for each patient. We’re also talking about real-time monitoring of tumors to identify mechanisms of adaptive resistance. This could allow us to develop counter responses by figuring out how to react in near real time.
This is absolutely personalized, precision medicine, and I think melanoma researchers and the MRA are going to lead it.
Can you share a little about yourself? What do you outside of the lab?
One of the things I enjoy most is coaching soccer. Right now I’m coaching U14 girls soccer.