Half of all men and one-third of all women will get cancer in their lifetime
This sobering statistic underscores the importance of cancer in human health. Sadly, for those who get cancer, nearly half will die from their disease. Worse, despite the best efforts of thousands of researchers and billions of dollars spent, finding a cure for cancer has always felt more like a dream than reality. Thus, cancer patients and their families were left with toxic treatments that provided short term solutions, but rarely led to cures.
The immune revolution in cancer
In the past few years, there has been a revolution in cancer therapy following the demonstration that cells of the immune system can be used to fight cancer. The key to this discovery was the realization that in many patients with tumors, they have immune cells that are naturally fighting cancer. Many patients already have immune cells inside them that can completely destroy their cancer, but not without help. New "immunotherapeutics" (drugs that target the immune system) have been developed to help the natural immune system to find and destroy the cancer in the body. Amazingly, when these therapies are successful, patients can be cleared of multiple tumors, throughout the body, and more impressively, they can remain tumor-free for decades without further treatment. Because they target the immune system, immunotherapeutics have been successful in many different types of cancer, and while the trials are too recent to know how many patients will survive long term, the data suggest that patients who do not relapse within 3 years will remain tumor-free and are functionally cured of their disease. Thus, unlike other therapies, immunotherapeutics have the potential to cure types of cancer. This realization has electrified the oncology field and led to cancer immunology being named the scientific breakthrough in 2013 by Science Magazine.
Helping more patients
Despite the amazing results seen with immunotherapeutics, there are still only some patients that benefit from treatment and it's not clear why that is. This is a complex problem because the failures happen in patients, where data is difficult to obtain. Furthermore, it is not clear why immune cells naturally recognize tumors, but cannot destroy them without help in patients with cancer. Finally, we don't know much about the immune cells that fight cancer, and therefore it is hard to know how to fix them in cancer patients. Our goal in the lab is to figure out how cancer and the immune system interact during the development of cancer to understand why the natural immune response against cancer fails and to figure out new ways that we can improve that response.