Petr Hausner, MD

Petr Hausner, MD, PhD

A recent clinical trial for rectal cancer has brought worldwide attention to the promising benefits of immunotherapy – an innovative treatment that uses a patient's own immune system to fight diseases like cancer.

Each of the fourteen people who participated in the trial received an immunotherapy medicine known as a checkpoint inhibitor, and each one remarkably saw their rectal cancer tumors disappear.

This trial and others conducted at National Cancer Institute-Designated Cancer Centers like the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center (UMGCCC) are revolutionizing cancer treatment, said Petr F. Hausner, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and investigator on several UMGCCC immunotherapy trials.

"Immunotherapy has completely changed the outlook of some diseases," Dr. Hausner said. "Many immunotherapy trials are achieving responses never seen before in different types of cancer. That's why it remains a central focus of our research here at the University of Maryland School of Medicine."

At UMGCCC, the robust Tumor Immunology and Immunotherapy (TII) Program is dedicated to understanding the immune regulation of malignant disease and then using this knowledge to develop novel diagnostic, preventive and treatment regimens. Research falls under these three categories:

  • Cell-based cancer immunotherapies – Elicit active tumor immunity capable of reducing or preventing malignant cell growth
  • Inhibiting immunosuppression – Develop strategies to overcome tumor immune evasion
  • Cancer and inflammation – Elucidate the roles for infection and inflammatory responses in cancer development

"Through our research, we are gaining a deeper understanding of immunotherapy and developing more rational approaches to using the therapy for different cancers," Dr. Hausner said.

For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration certified UMGCCC in 2018 to offer CAR T-Cell Therapy, a genetically engineered immunotherapy, to patients with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

"We have the team and the wisdom to develop these novel treatments, and we work with patients and physicians across the UM Cancer Network to identify patients who would benefit from them," Dr. Hausner said.

Patients also benefit from the "cross-pollination" between UMGCCC's cancer immunology and University of Maryland Medical Center's transplant immunology, he said.

Learn about UMGCCC's latest advances in immunotherapy.

Watch a video about CAR T-Cell Therapy



Three Quick Facts About Checkpoint Inhibitors

  1. Immune checkpoint inhibitors are a type of drug that blocks proteins called checkpoints that are made by certain types of immune system cells. They help keep immune responses from being too strong and sometimes can keep immune cells from killing cancer cells. When these checkpoints are blocked, the immune cells can better kill cancer cells.
  2. Immune checkpoint inhibitors only work for a subset of cancers (cancers arising as a consequence of mutating carcinogens, smoking, sunlight and inherited or acquired genetic instability).
  3. Adverse events can occur when the immune system activated through these inhibitors attacks normal tissue. This happens in about 10 percent of cases. In most situations, it is reversible.