Dr. Villena-Vargas' Personal Statement
Dr. Villena-Vargas is a clinician, with particular expertise in the surgical management of lung cancer. He has written numerous clinical manuscripts with regard to the screening, staging, and management of thoracic cancers. Dr. Villena-Vargas’ current translational work focuses on the role of tumor-draining lymph nodes in establishing immunosurveillance in lung cancer. He is especially interested in decreasing metastatic recurrence by establishing a long-term functional immune response.
In addition to translational research, Dr. Villena-Vargas is committed to increasing lung cancer awareness and decreasing cancer inequality. He has conducted multiple bi-lingual national and international presentations on lung cancer disparities and research. His current work focuses on ethnic differences in lung cancer care. He is especially interested in the Latino population which has shown increased risk factors and distinct clinical treatment outcomes. In addition to clarifying ethnic clinical differences, Dr. Villena-Vargas is interested in socioeconomic barriers in underserved populations. He has pursued funded outreach research in collaboration with the community health centers in an effort to enhance COVID education to Spanish-speaking populations.
Dr. Villena-Vargas’ career development activities include grant writing, data presentation, and collaboration with research groups and lab cores in the Tri-Institutional organization of Weill Cornell Medicine, Rockefeller University, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Recently, his lab was chosen as a participant in the 2022 Meyer Cancer Center / Englander Institute of Precision Medicine Summer Program that matches exemplary medical students to their research interests. A selected medical student was chosen to receive training and mentorship in his lab during the summer of 2022 as part of this program.
2023 LCFA/BMS/ILCF Disparities in Clinical Research Grants
About the LCFA-Funded Research
Characterizing T cell PD-1 response in the tumor-draining lymph nodes of early-stage NSCLC patients
Approximately 25% of the patients diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) exhibit early-stage disease. Patients with early-stage NSCLC are routinely treated by surgery, which results in local control. However, systemic relapse (metastasis) occurs in 50% of patients within 5 years of surgery even with additional therapy such as chemotherapy and/or radiation. Immune checkpoint blockade (ICB) targeting the PD-1/PD-L1 axis has revolutionized the treatment landscape, generating therapeutic efficacy in approximately 25% of patients in early and advanced stages of lung cancer. However, there are currently inconclusive studies as to optimal combination therapy and prediction of patient response.
In order to recapitulate early-stage lung cancer treatment and metastatic recurrence, Dr. Villena-Vargas’ lab has established a mouse model of resection and recurrence. Their preliminary data has revealed a major immune response at the level of the tumor-draining lymph node (TDLN) with PD-1 checkpoint blockade. In addition, this response is primarily responsible for T-cell memory differentiation, proliferation, and survival with a subsequent decrease in metastatic recurrence in responding mice. Given these results, they hypothesize that optimal therapy against metastatic recurrence will be dependent on the establishment of appropriate T-cell memory “immunosurveillance”. Importantly, Dr. Villena-Vargas and his lab have characterized that these specific T-cell memory populations are uniquely found in the TDLN of early-stage patients. In this proposal they will utilize a combination of both novel preclinical mouse models and patient-derived tumor-draining lymph node T cells, to dissect molecular and cellular mechanisms of “immune-memory” response or resistance to immunotherapy, the key steps in establishing immunosurveillance for freedom from metastatic recurrence.