Using the human body to fight cancer: UChicago’s Kunle Odunsi explores innovative immunotherapy treatments

November 15, 2021

Millions of people are diagnosed with cancer each year, and more than 100 types of cancer in humans are known to exist. New treatment options offer hope to cancer patients, and immunotherapy is currently one of the leading areas of study in cancer research: these treatments activate the human immune system to locate and destroy cancer cells. While some cancer patients have positive responses to immunotherapy, many do not respond to immunotherapy drugs. Adekunle "Kunle" Odunsi is determined to figure out why. 

As AbbVie Foundation Director of the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center, Biological Sciences Division Dean for Oncology, and AbbVie Foundation Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Odunsi’s ovarian cancer research focuses on understanding the mechanisms of immune tolerance. He wants to learn how malignant tumors escape from immune attack and develop strategies to overcome those challenges.

“We have identified important chemokine receptor pairs that mediate multiple aspects of immune tolerance within the tumor microenvironment, and pairs that promote residency of T cells in the tumor,” Odunsi said.  “We’ve also genetically engineered an oncolytic virus to not only destroy tumors, but also deliver a compound that blocks immune suppression and reprograms into the tumor environment, to be more immunogenic.”

This unique treatment for advanced ovarian cancer will deliver immunotherapy directly into the abdominal cavity, which is where the cancer traditionally spreads. The efficacy of the treatment will be enhanced by combining it with an immune checkpoint inhibitor. Next year, the treatment will be administered in its first human clinical trial offered by the University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. The University is also conducting clinical trials of several novel T cell immunotherapies, some of which are based on work from the Odunsi laboratory. 

Odunsi is relatively new to the University, having arrived at the institution in March 2021. Previously, he served as Deputy Director of the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and Executive Director of the Center for Immunotherapy at Roswell Park in Buffalo, New York. He was excited to join the University for the opportunity to contribute to the transformative, high-impact scientific discovery UChicago is known for, and to continue working to improve the lives of cancer patients.

“UChicago has an incredibly strong foundation,” Odunsi said. “We have exceptional scientists who are building a pipeline leading to innovative cancer treatments. My vision is for us to be a preeminent, world-class cancer center known for the rapid implementation of scientific discoveries.”

Odunsi is currently leading the University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center’s strategic planning process to define the path forward. Multiple stakeholders from across the University are engaged in this work. Odunsi believes the institution has a unique opportunity to become a national model on how to address health care disparities.

“We have a high proportion of underrepresented minorities in our community, high rates of adverse social determinants of health, and significant social issues that shape the ability to access health care,” he said. “At the University, we have talent from the social sciences, public policy, economics—a brain trust that can really be leveraged to think about these issues and propose novel approaches to address the health care disparities in cancer treatment.”

The Comprehensive Cancer Center will announce details of its new strategic plan in early 2022.