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Fighting Melanoma and Other Cancers Using Immunotherapy

Siwen Hu-Lieskovan in green blazer
Siwen Hu-Lieskovan, MD, PhD.

Siwen Hu-Lieskovan, MD, PhD
Physician-Scientist at Huntsman Cancer Institute
Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Utah

"My 5 is for my dad. His cancer was early stage at the beginning, and eventually it progressed and he died from it. Throughout his care, I started to realize how few options the patients actually have, especially in terms of immunotherapy for his kind of cancer—gastrointestinal cancer. There is still a lot we need to do."
—Siwen Hu-Lieskovan

For Siwen Hu-Lieskovan, MD, PhD, it was the promise of immunotherapy—that is, harnessing the body’s own immune system to fight cancer—that inspired her to get into cancer research. Training under one of the pioneers of immunotherapy, she witnessed amazing survival stories of patients, including one woman who is living a normal life 10 years after a diagnosis that likely would have been a death sentence prior to immunotherapy.

"With all the tools we have, we can induce this incredible, durable response, and that’s really exciting," she says. "But we do have many patients whose disease is resistant to immunotherapy. Their cancer continues to progress and eventually we and the family lose the patient. I think that those cases are the ultimate stimulation or inspiration for me. Why do we still lose people and how do we improve care and survival?"

The project Hu-Lieskovan proposed for the 5 For The Fight grant is to tackle the immune-related adverse events when adding different immunotherapies. To improve efficacy, oncologists need to combine treatments that can activate the immune system in different ways, which are often restricted by severe side effects that are trigged by over-stimulation. Hu-Lieskovan and her team are seeking ways to predict, monitor, and prevent these immune-related adverse events, while preserving and enhancing the potent anti-tumor immunity. The more oncologists combine different types of immunotherapy, the more monitoring is required to make sure patients can tolerate combination therapies.

"In oncology we don’t like to say cure, right? We say the disease is controlled for 10 years. If you look at the melanoma field, 10 years ago, the two-year survival is less than 15% if the patient has stage IV disease," she says. "Now, more than 50% of patients can survive more than five years. So we have already made really great strides with immunotherapy. I think if you give it 50 years, for sure we’ll cure cancer."

Advice for Young Scientists

"I was able to get to this point because of the support and encouragement from my mentors throughout my career. They pointed out the path and provided opportunities to me, and all of us need to do the same to our trainees. Seek good mentors."

What She Would Tell Patients

"We are here to help you. We understand the challenge of fighting cancer as a patient and family, emotionally, physically, logistically, and financially. We want you to know you are not alone in this path and we are committed to provide the best care, hope, comfort, and respect."

Cancer touches all of us.