Highlighting the Cancer Therapeutics + Host Response Research Program

Introducing CTHR’s new co-leader, Elias Sayour, M.D., Ph.D.

Maryam Rahman, M.D., assistant professor in the department of Neurosurgery at the University of Florida, speaks during a CTHR meeting in 2019.

The research priorities of the UF Health Cancer Center cut across and align with our three research programs, one of which is Cancer Therapeutics and Host Response (CTHR). CTHR is the engine of translational clinical research for the cancer center; its mission is to define mechanisms regulating host responses to tumor progression and advance novel therapeutic treatments for patients with cancer.

“We aim to further harness and integrate the vast expertise at UF to focus on the cancer problem and to strengthen training in clinical and translational science to enhance the process of moving UF discoveries toward human application,” said Christian Jobin, Ph.D., co-leader of the program and tenured professor of medicine in the UF College of Medicines’ division of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition. “Immunotherapy development for malignant brain tumors has achieved a national recognition and CTHR investigators are spearheading immune-oncology research focused on many solid and hematologic malignancies.” 

In recent years, CTHR has grown in multiple fronts, including research expertise/background, infrastructure development and community engagement, says Dr. Jobin.

For example, CTHR has integrated the efforts of clinicians and scientists from throughout the UF Health Science Center and with researchers in the Colleges of Engineering, Journalism and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, thereby contributing a unique expertise and perspective on cancer research. CTHR has enhanced community engagement to help guide the focus of our research toward areas of importance to our community and aims to fully integrate bi-directional communications with the community into the fabric of their research activities.

CTHR currently has 137 members from eight colleges and 33 departments across the University of Florida. Since January 2021, CTHR members have secured 15 new peer-reviewed research grants and published 372 manuscripts — with approximately 15% appearing in scientific journals with an impact factor greater than 10.

The research program’s growth has contributed to an increase in the number and breadth of UF investigator-initiated trials — particularly first-in-human immunotherapy trials, with the issuance of five FDA-approved INDs for novel therapeutic treatments.

Aim 1. Define cancer immunobiology and develop novel immunotherapies for refractory malignancies.
Aim 2. Elucidate microbiome function in cancer development and therapeutics.
Aim 3. Identify and validate targeted therapeutics engaging key cancer pathways and translate discoveries into new clinical trials.

A newly-formed and vibrant Pediatric Cancer Immunotherapy Initiative has been launched coalescing the talents of an interdisciplinary team of scientists and clinicians to develop a center of excellence in the treatment of refractory pediatric cancers. Additionally, CTHR has grown the microbiome research footprint with the creation of a Microbiome Cancer Biobank under the directorship of Dr. Ryan Thomas (CTHR) to move microbiome-derived discoveries to our clinical trial pipeline.

Christian Jobin, Ph.D.

In October, Elias Sayour, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of neurosurgery and pediatrics, and principal investigator of the RNA Engineering Laboratory within the Preston A. Wells, Jr. Center for Brain Tumor Therapy and UF Brain Tumor Immunotherapy Program,  was appointed co-leader of the Cancer Therapeutics & Host Response (CTHR) research program. He inherits the role from Duane Mitchell, M.D., Ph.D., who has joined the Cancer Center’s executive leadership team as associate director for innovation and discovery.

“Dr. Sayour, who learned the ways of the Jedi from Dr. Mitchell, is a remarkably talented and exciting successor in the leadership of the CTHR research program,” said Jonathan Licht, M.D., Director of the UF Health Cancer Center. “His deep dedication to outstanding patient care for children with cancer and determination to develop new therapies for all types of malignancy make him a perfect leader for this program.”

Together, Drs. Sayour and Jobin will further the mission of the CTHR research program: to advance the understanding of interactions between tumor cells, immune cells and microbiota that mediate tumor development, progression and host responses, and to develop therapeutics that capitalize on these mechanisms and interactions. 

“It is with great excitement that I welcome Dr. Sayour as the new co-leader of CTHR. His extensive expertise in translational research, immunotherapy and first-in-human clinical trials will greatly facilitate CTHR’s mission to provide novel therapeutics to our cancer patients.”

Christian Jobin, Ph.D.

In his new role, Dr. Sayour says he aims to increase the number and breadth of UF investigator-initiated trials — particularly first-in-human immunotherapy trials. He also seeks to increase the number of physician-scientists and clinical investigators interested in cancer research while fostering novel training opportunities and growing the Pediatric Cancer Immunotherapy Initiative (PCI2) into a nationally recognized center of excellence.

Elias Sayour, M.D., Ph.D.

“I look forward to integrating and coalescing the myriad exciting endeavors taking place across campus in engineering, veterinary medicine, the UF College of Medicine and the CTSI toward cancer research,” said Dr. Sayour.

Dr. Sayour completed undergraduate training at Fordham University, received his medical degree from the University at Buffalo and his doctorate from Duke University. After finishing his pediatric residency at Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center of New York, he completed a hematology-oncology fellowship at Duke University Medical Center before accepting a faculty position at the University of Florida.

Dr. Sayour is currently an NIH funded investigator and a board-certified pediatric oncologist. He serves as vice chair of the UF Health Cancer Center Scientific Review Monitoring Committee (SRMC) and as pediatric Disease-Site Group (DSG) leader. 

Dr. Sayour has extensive translational experience having served as sponsor of multiple FDA-IND submissions (BB-19304, BB-20871) and as PI/Study Chair on first-in-human clinical trials (NCT03334305, NCT04573140). He serves as UF institutional PI for the prestigious Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium and Pacific Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Consortium, allowing him to coordinate both UF and national resources to advance promising therapeutics, clinical trials and facilitate cross-programmatic working groups between basic scientists and clinical investigators. In October, Dr. Sayour was awarded Innovation of the Year from UF Innovate | Tech Licensing for developing mRNA vaccines to train the immune system to fight cancer. 

In March 2020, Dr. Sayour received a $2.5 million grant from CureSearch for Children’s Cancer to undertake a first-in-human clinical trial to test a novel form of immunotherapy to treat the most aggressive forms of malignant brain tumors. In February, he was awarded a Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT)(R37) Award from the NCI titled,“Overcoming the blood-brain barrier with nanoparticle vaccines against gliomas.” This prestigious award (R37 CA251978) provides longer-term grant support to early-stage investigators with up to seven years of support awarded by NCI.