cancer research

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Cancer Immunotherapy: Hot With Promise, Potential Breakthroughs

Dr. Carl June (Abramson Cancer Center)

Dr. Carl June (University of Pennsylvania)

If there’s a science equivalent to the Oscars, or People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, this might be it: last year Cancer Immunotherapy — a technique that harnesses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer — was named Science magazine’s “breakthrough of the year.”

In bestowing the honor, Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt, whose own father died of lung cancer, wrote: “We believe that 2013 marks a significant moment in cancer history, and today’s achievements merit recognition and celebration, even if uncertainties remain.”

The idea of exploiting the body’s own immune system to battle cancer isn’t new. But what’s getting all the buzz lately is some promising new data.

In December, 2013, researchers led by Dr. Carl June, director of translational medicine of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, reported the results of a study testing immunotherapy on children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Of the 22 patients treated, 86 percent experienced complete remissions. And new research out of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center this week shows that the treatment also had an effect on 14 out of 16 adult patients with ALL.

(A bit about how it works: This type of treatment, known as T-cell immunotherapy, functions a little like a blood transfusion. After a patient gives blood, scientists isolate T-cells, a white blood cell that is part of the immune system. They genetically alter these cells in a laboratory — programming them to kill cancer cells — before they are reinfused into the patient. Dr. June calls these modified cells “serial killer” T-cells.)

Despite the excitement, it’s still too early to tell what the long-term effect of this type of therapy might be, or why it doesn’t work in some of the patients who were treated.

To find out more, I spoke with Dr. June, whose worked was featured at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago last week.

AM: Could you explain the concept of immunotherapy?

CJ: Immunotherapy is an approach that can be used for a number of diseases, from things like asthma and hay fever to cancer. In the case of cancer, where my laboratory has worked, there are a number of approaches to harness the immune system so that it can attack the cancer cells. In animal models, one can show that it can cure animals that have very advanced cancers. Continue reading

Love And Rare Cancer: Widow Fights On For Eye Melanoma Research

Sara Selig and Gregg Stracks on the day they were engaged.

Sara Selig and Gregg Stracks on the day they were engaged. (Julie Harris)

Dr. Sara Selig’s living room is a tribute to the love of her life. Her wedding contract – a Jewish tradition – hangs in a frame over the mantle. Pictures of herself with her “beloved Gregg” rest on the table behind the couch, and were sewn into a quilt, handmade by a friend.

The love is still there, even though Gregg Stracks died 17 months ago. “Love and relationships don’t die when a person dies,” Sara says.

That’s why she keeps up her fight against the rare cancer that took his life: uveal melanoma, cancer of tissue in the eye.

Gregg’s diagnosis came seven years ago, shortly after the couple returned to the US from living in Kenya so Sara could finish her last year of medical school. After a run, Gregg noticed that the pavement looked wavy. When the same thing happened the next day, he went to an eye doctor and then a specialist.  Diagnosed with uveal melanoma, he quickly had surgery.

The ophthalmologists who treated it didn’t know the oncologists who treated it, or the researchers who studied it.

Sara was hopeful their cancer story was over; Gregg feared the worst. About a year later he was told the cancer had spread to his liver. Uveal melanoma will spread in roughly half of patients, and is nearly always fatal when it does. Gregg was given less than a year to live.

Sara had started her residency at Brigham And Women’s Hospital, specializing in internal medicine and global health; Gregg started a clinical trial – an early treatment that they hoped would give them more time together.

Gregg, an organizational psychologist who helped African patients cope with the emotional side of HIV and AIDS, wrapped up that work after his diagnosis, and – still feeling good – started a consulting business, so he could spend time closer to home.

His doctor told Sara and Gregg that research into uveal melanoma was lagging other cancers. The ophthalmologists who treated it didn’t know the oncologists who treated it, or the researchers who studied it, he said. So Sara began working with the Melanoma Research Foundation to organize meetings of doctors and researchers, and form Community United for Research and Education of Ocular Melanoma (CURE OM), which she now heads.

She’s since helped raise more than $1 million, most of it for research into uveal melanoma. Diagnosed in about 1,500-2,000 American patients per year,  it is mainly detected during routine eye exams when an otherwise flat mole at the back of the eye starts to thicken. Continue reading

BU Cancer Researcher Fabricated Data, Feds Report

We totally missed this story yesterday of former Boston University School of Medicine assistant professor and cancer researcher, Sheng Wang, who federal authorities say fabricated data published in two scientific journals. The news was first reported on the website Retraction Watch here.

The case is detailed on the website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity:

Sheng Wang, PhD, Boston University School of Medicine Cancer Research Center: Based on the Respondent’s acceptance of ORI’s research misconduct findings, ORI found that Dr. Sheng Wang, who has been an Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine, Boston University School of Medicine Cancer Research Center (BUSM), engaged in research misconduct in research supported by National Cancer Institute (NCI), National Institutes of Health (NIH), grants R01 CA102940 and R01 CA101992.

Continue reading

The Future Of Cancer Research: A Public Hearing In Boston

Calling all researchers, public health advocates and cancer experts: The President’s Cancer Panel, a federal committee that appraises national cancer programs, is holding an all-day public meeting on Wednesday, September 22 from 8am-5pm at the Hyatt Regency in Boston to discuss the future of cancer research and how to accelerate scientific innovation.

Topic for exploration include:

–How has the cancer research and advocacy landscape changed since 1971?

–What is the vision of the course of cancer research in the next 15 years and what new models of research, collaboration, communication, and funding are needed to achieve this vision of future cancer research?

— How can we harness the incredible results of the technological revolution to speed us towards a new horizon of cancer research?

–What new medical, ethical and legal issues will be encountered as we progress into a new era of science?

Several local and national cancer experts will be moderating the discussion, among them: Edward J. Benz, Jr., M.D., President, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; Judy E.Garber, M.D., M.P.H., President-Elect, American Association for Cancer Research; John Auerbach, M.B.A., President-Elect, Association of State and Territorial Health Officials; Otis W. Brawley, M.D., Chief Medical Officer, American Cancer Society.