Sikora to focus on important cancer research as Caroline Wiess Law Scholar

Dr. Andrew Sikora, associate professor in the department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery and vice chair for research and co-director of the head and neck cancer program, was recently named a Caroline Wiess Law Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine.

This award is designed to recruit and retain accomplished physician-scientists who have the potential to translate scientific discoveries into effective clinical applications. The award funds researchers for $1 million over three years.

“We were very excited when Dr. Sikora agreed to join our faculty last summer,” said Dr. Donald Donovan, chair of the department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Baylor. “We felt fortunate to attract a physician-scientist of his stature to our department. We believe Dr. Sikora’s research will lead to significant breakthroughs in our understanding of cancer biology that will lead to novel cancer approaches in treatment of cancer in the future. We are grateful that Ms. Caroline Weiss Law’s generosity helped make Dr. Sikora’s recruitment possible.”

Dr. Andrew Sikora

Dr. Andrew Sikora

Sikora’s research is focused on developing new cancer therapy approaches by understanding and exploiting the immune response to cancers in the head and neck. His primary area of clinical research is HPV-related oropharyngeal (throat) cancer, the fastest-growing type of head and neck cancer. Sikora is the primary investigator for a clinical trial of a novel immunotherapy approach to HPV-related head and neck cancer that uses bioengineered bacteria expressing an HPV protein antigen to simultaneously deliver the antigen to immune cells while “tricking” the immune system into responding to a bacterial infection.

Another interest of his is understanding the interaction of conventional cancer therapies such as chemotherapy and radiation, with the immune system. He recently demonstrated that treatment with chemoradiotherapy can suppress the immune response of patients with HPV-related head and neck cancer by upregulation of a signaling molecule called PD-1, which shuts down anti-tumor T cell responses. Sikora said this is an exciting finding because therapeutic antibodies targeting PD-1 signaling are clinically available, and this study provides a strong rationale for their combination with chemoradiotherapy.

“This is really important going forward because in many cases we will need to combine immunotherapies with conventional therapies,” Sikora said. “We want to understand how standard-of-care therapies interact with the immune system because that’s probably going to determine how successful these combinations are going to be.”

The laboratory side of his research is focused on understanding the mechanisms that are used by tumors to shut down a patient’s immune response. By understanding how tumors are able to turn off anti-tumor responses, he hopes to learn how to turn that specific immune response back on.

“Through our work with mouse cancer models we’ve found that blocking the inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) molecule shuts down production of an immunosuppressive cell type known as myeloid derived suppressor cells (MDSC). If you do this while simultaneously depleting another type of immunosuppressive cell known as T-regulatory cells (Treg) you unleash a really potent anti-tumor response,” Sikora explained.

He said this response drove effector cytotoxic T lymphocytes into the tumor and led to a reduction in tumor size.

“Our goal is to use the funds from this award to perform research that will allow us to understand cancer-related immune mechanisms and to use this information to develop new therapeutic approaches,” he said.

The late Caroline Wiess Law was a generous Houston philanthropist whose estate endowed the Scholar program. Her generosity has benefitted many Baylor departments.