Chrystal Paulos: Top researcher honor affirmed by V Foundation grant for novel T cell therapy for melanoma

October 2021

Dr. Chrystal Paulos

The naming of Chrystal Paulos, PhD, director of translational research for cutaneous malignancies at Winship Cancer Institute, as an honoree for Emory Researcher Appreciation Day has been underscored by her receipt of the V Foundation for Cancer Research 2021 Translational Award. 

The award will fund her study to rejuvenate T cells for the treatment of patients with advanced melanoma. Emory hematologist and medical oncologist Ragini Kudchadkar, MD, will join Dr. Paulos' research team as co-principal investigator on this study, which will also include such key collaborators as surgical oncologists Mike Lowe, MD, and Keith Delman, MD, and biostatistician Yuan Liu, PhD. 

This V Foundation grant is a three-year, $600,000 award supporting bench to bedside research that concludes with the planning of a future clinical trial. In this case, the trial would involve melanoma patients unresponsive to anti-PD-1 based immunotherapy.

Though survival for patients with advanced melanoma has improved over the last decade with the introduction of single agent anti-PD-1 antibody treatment, half of patients that receive this therapy experience recurrence. Combination immunotherapy is also used to treat patients with melanoma, but its higher response rate is counterbalanced by greater toxic side effects. To date, there are few reliable blood or tumor markers that can predict which therapy may be the best choice for patients.

"This project is focused on understanding why some patients are resistant to PD1-based therapies," says Dr. Paulos. "We recently discovered that patients who had more of the protein CD26 in their tumor's immune cells were more responsive to treatment. These collective findings beg the question: What is the role of CD26 in the immune response to melanoma?"

Dr. Paulos and her team will study CD26 melanoma immunity using patients' blood and tumor samples, with the goal of uncovering data that will allow CD26 to be used as a biomarker in prognosis for patients treated with PD-1-based therapies. This discovery would pave the way for clinical studies to evaluate the success of CD26 as a predictive marker for helping to select whether combination or single-agent immunotherapy would be the most appropriate treatment for a patient.

"Our work also suggests that CD26 could be targeted to improve outcomes in patients unresponsive to standard of care therapies, or that CD26-expressing T cells could be used in the future to advanced adoptive T cell transfer therapies for melanoma," says Dr. Paulos.