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A five-year, $11 million federal grant for ovarian cancer research at Roswell Park Cancer Institute will support three trials of immunotherapy approaches, such as vaccines, officials said Monday.

The approaches use the body’s natural ability to defend itself against disease-causing organisms to treat and prevent cancer.

The grant will pay for the major initiative with the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute to examine new ways to prevent and treat the disease.

One other project will study ways to reduce risk in women at high risk of developing ovarian cancer.

This is the first Specialized Program of Research Excellence, or SPORE, grant at Roswell Park. It is only the fifth SPORE grant in the United States devoted to ovarian cancer and the only one focused on using the immune system to fight the disease.

For Roswell Park, it indicates national recognition of the significant investment made by institute management in recent years to focus on immunotherapy for cancer. It also reflects excitement over the promising potential of the ovarian cancer studies completed so far at the cancer center.

“It’s a landmark event for Roswell Park,” said Dr. Kunle Odunsi, principal investigator and director of the cancer center’s Center for Immunotherapy. “Without the team effort and the investment, we would not be here today.”

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2013 about 22,240 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. and that 14,230 women will die of the disease. Odunsi and others said novel therapies and preventive strategies are needed because the disease often isn’t detected until late stages.

“Ovarian cancer is a real bad actor. By the time it’s diagnosed, tumors usually have traveled to distant sites in the body,” said Dr. Candace Johnson, deputy director of the cancer center.

Women from Western New York and Pennsylvania will have access to the treatment trials. As hopeful as the idea of vaccinating to treat or prevent cancer seems, researchers face huge challenges.

Among other things, Odunsi said it is unclear why some patients do well with immunotherapy while others don’t. In addition, he said, researchers must examine other approaches to activate the immune system to help the body fight cancer cells.

The SPORE grant is a highly sought-after type of funding for cancer research. The National Cancer Institute, through an appropriation from Congress, established these grants in 1992 to promote collaboration between scientists and to speed the development of new strategies for preventing, testing and treating cancers in specific organs of the body.

email: hdavis@buffnews.com