Leading a Paradigm Shift in Cancer Research

| OHNS.UCSF.edu | November 01, 2023

Matt Spitzer

When Associate Professor of Otolaryngology Matthew Spitzer, PhD, was in fifth grade, his mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She passed away while he was in college. “That was a strong motivating force for me to get involved in cancer research,” Dr. Spitzer said.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Spitzer started work on his PhD at a time when cancer immunology was beginning to gain traction. “There were early, but exciting, new data showing that using the immune system could benefit patients with cancer,” he said. The young researcher saw a new path forward in understanding and treating the disease that had impacted him so deeply.

“Previously, all cancer treatments had really been focused on trying to kill cancer cells – radiating cancer cells, using poisons called chemotherapies to kill cancer cells, surgically removing cancer cells, or using targeted therapies to block the signaling that cancer cells rely on to survive,” he said.

Dr. Spitzer’s research focuses on developing better immune-based treatments for head and neck cancer and increasing understanding for how the immune system works.

A Unique Approach to Research

Instead of relying on large clinical trials that measure the impact of drugs on tumor size, Dr. Spitzer’s research group is investigating substantial effects on smaller patient cohorts. “We’re looking for big clinical signals, and using that as an opportunity to study the biology in detail so we can really understand what these drugs are doing.”

Dr. Spitzer and his collaborative network, which includes physician-scientists, medical oncologists, surgeons, and pathologists, are employing neoadjuvant trials as a crucial methodology. In these trials new drugs are administered preoperatively with pathologic evaluation post-therapy at the time of surgery.

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