UCLA researcher receives prestigious innovator award to develop new immunotherapies to fight melanoma

Dr. Antoni Ribas will receive $4.2 million over six years as recipient of the 2015 National Cancer Institute Outstanding Investigator Award
Dr. Antoni Ribas is director of the UCLA Health Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center's tumor immunology program and president of the American Association for Cancer Research.

UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center member Dr. Antoni Ribas has received a National Cancer Institute (NCI) Outstanding Investigator Award of $4.2 million in recognition of his groundbreaking research developing new immunotherapies that utilize the human body's own natural defenses to fight cancer.

The NCI Outstanding Investigator Award supports investigators with outstanding records of productivity in cancer research by providing extended funding stability and encouraging investigators to continue or embark on projects of unusual potential in cancer research.

Ribas’ recent clinical research led to the approval of Keytruda (pembrolizumab) for the treatment of advanced melanoma. Keytruda is the first-in-class PD-1 blocking immunotherapy approved by the U.S Food & Drug Administration. PD-1 is expressed by immune cells and acts as a brake, which in turn keeps them from recognizing and attacking cancer cells.

For many years, when using immunotherapy to fight cancer, the strategy has been to stimulate cells of the immune system so they could kill the cancer cells. However, this approach had limited success, because PD-1 prevented these cells from becoming active enough to attack the cancer. Keytruda, in effect, cuts the brake lines, freeing up the immune system to attack the cancer.

As part of the largest phase 1 study in the history of oncology, Ribas was principal investigator of clinical trial that enrolled more than 600 patients with melanoma that had spread throughout their bodies. Because so many of the patients in the early testing showed significant long-lasting responses, the study was continued and the FDA granted the drug "breakthrough therapy" status, allowing it to be fast-tracked for approval in October 2014.