Making an impact in the real-world: Five things to know about the Van Andel Institute–Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team

Since October 2014, the Van Andel Institute–Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team has supported and launched breakthrough clinical trials that explore potential new treatments for a host of cancers.

This multi-institutional effort, based at VAI in Grand Rapids, Michigan, combines the expertise and resources of leading cancer research and treatment organizations in the U.S. and abroad, all toward a unified goal: helping people with cancer by quickly moving promising treatments into clinical trials.

This innovative paradigm fosters collaboration that fuels discovery and offers a framework for clinical trials in cancer and beyond.

Here are five things to know about the VAI–SU2C Epigenetics Dream Team and its epigenetics clinical trials.

1. The team is exploring new drug combinations for a one-two punch against cancer

Epigenetics is a key part of health. But when things go wrong, these crucial mechanisms can contribute to disease. Thanks to a growing body of research, we now know that epigenetic changes are common drivers of cancer — and offer new targets for treatment.

Most cancer medications target a specific vulnerability of cancer. But what happens when you pair an epigenetic medication with a medication that targets the immune system? Or another key feature of cancer? The VAI–SU2C Epigenetics Dream Team is working to find out. Each one of the team’s trials pairs an epigenetic medication with other medications, with the goal of finding a combination that more effectively treats cancer and saves lives.

2. The team is launching clinical trials that involve hundreds of patients

Since its inception, the VAI–SU2C Epigenetics Dream Team has launched 14 clinical trials in the U.S. and Europe to explore new cancer treatments. More than 700 people have participated — and we are endlessly grateful to them for their invaluable contributions.

In addition to treating people in the clinical trials, VAI scientists conduct additional laboratory studies to better understand cancer. This work provides vital insights that inform new treatment approaches that can then be evaluated in future clinical trials.

To date, trials have investigated new treatments for lung cancer, blood cancers, breast cancer, bladder cancer, colorectal cancer, and liver, pancreatic, bile duct and gallbladder cancers.

3. The team is shedding new light on how epigenetic treatments and immunotherapies may work together to combat cancer

Immunotherapies are treatments that enhance the body’s natural immune defenses to fight cancer but not all cancers respond to this breakthrough strategy. Results from VAI–SU2C Epigenetics Dream Team trials in several cancers — including those of the lung, bladder, blood — suggest that combining epigenetic medications with immunotherapies may reverse treatment resistance, which ultimately may help better combat cancer.

4. The team is breaking new ground in understanding and treating blood cancers

A pair of cancer medications demonstrated increased survival in patients with relapsed/refractory myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) by an average of 10 months compared to historical controls, according to results from a phase 1/2 clinical trial supported by the VAI–SU2C Epigenetics Dream Team and published in Clinical Cancer Research.

In addition to improving overall average survival from five to 15 months, the trial findings also suggest the effectiveness of combining medications that target both the immunological and epigenetic drivers of cancers.1

5. The team is investigating whether cancer medications paired with vitamin C can prevent cancer progression

Vitamin C is a nutrient with many important roles in the body — supporting the immune system, repairing damaged tissues and staving off scurvy. For years, it’s been touted as a cure-all for the common cold (it isn’t, although some studies suggest it may lessen a cold’s duration if taken before symptom onset) and as a miracle molecule with a host of other effects.

This dubious reputation unfortunately paves over reality: vitamin C is important and may have previously unknown, scientifically valid treatment applications. Lab studies suggest that vitamin C is important for the function of genes that regulate epigenetics; it may help prevent the progression of early stages of blood cancer and may boost the cancer-fighting effects of certain epigenetic medications. Additional rigorous clinical research is required to confirm and understand these potential effects.

That’s why the VAI–SU2C Epigenetics Dream Team is studying vitamin C in a pair of clinical trials based at Rigshospitalet and University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

One trial is investigating whether vitamin C can reverse the epigenetic changes that transform healthy cells into cancerous ones and impede progression of pre-cancer blood diseases into leukemia.

Another trial is studying whether vitamin C can help an epigenetic medication better treat people with high-risk blood cancer versus the medication on its own.

Both trials are double-blinded and placebo-controlled, meaning neither the participants nor the researchers know who is getting the vitamin C supplement. This is a critical control measure that preserves integrity of the findings. Initial results are expected later this year.2

As the VAI–SU2C Epigenetics Dream Team continues its work, we look forward to sharing news about trial outcomes. Stay up to date with our work by signing up for our newsletter below.


1 Research funding for this work was provided by Van Andel Institute through the Van Andel Institute–Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team. Stand Up To Cancer is a division of the Entertainment Industry Foundation. The identifier for this trial is: NCT02935361.

2 Research funding for this work was provided by Van Andel Institute through the Van Andel Institute–Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team. Stand Up To Cancer is a division of the Entertainment Industry Foundation. The identifiers for the trials are:  NCT03682029 and NCT03999723