The Frontier of Cancer Treatment Possibilities

multi pipette research of cancer stem cells

BOZEMAN, Montana, Oct. 1 — Montana State University issued the following news:

An internationally renowned immunologist, cancer researcher and physician, Dr. John (J.J.) Cohen, will be the featured speaker at Montana State University’s second Cafe Scientifique event this fall.

Cohen will present “Stranger than Science Fiction: The frontier of cancer treatment possibilities and the futuristic-sounding biomedical technologies that could change everything” at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24, at The Baxter in downtown Bozeman. The event is organized by MSU’s Montana INBRE and COBRE programs and is free and open to the public.

Cohen, a professor of immunology, microbiology and medicine at the University of Colorado, Denver, plans to discuss how recent insights into the immune system are upending the cancer research landscape.

“Researchers have suspected for a long time that the immune system played a role in keeping us cancer-free, but all attempts to explain it failed until recently,” he said. “We just didn’t know enough about how to intervene in an orderly way, and researchers eventually gave up on this avenue.”

All of that is changing, Cohen said, thanks to new understandings about how the immune system works and cutting edge biomedical technologies that allow for more precise interventions.

“One potential magic bullet for cancer that’s available now involves synthesizing billions of monoclonal antibodies, or cloned antibodies derived from a single cell,” he said. “If there’s something on a cancer cell that distinguishes it from a normal cell, you can attack it with these types of antibodies, and in some cases it’s proving miraculous.”

Another new and promising therapy, says Cohen, is called checkpoint inhibition immunotherapy.

“When I first heard of this idea, I thought, ‘that’s never going to work,’ but it’s turning out to have a lot of promise,” he said. “The immune system’s job is to destroy cells and tissues that pose threats, so it stands to reason that a system that can do so much damage must have an off switch or a checkpoint.”

According to Cohen, checkpoint inhibition involves artificially blocking that off switch so that immune system cells are more likely to detect and destroy cancer cells.

“Tumors that persist have figured out how to paralyze a person’s normal immune response,” he said. “Once researchers understood that, the idea became, ‘let’s hide the off switch from the tumor and allow the immune system a chance to do its thing.’

“This is a highly promising mechanism we can use to interfere with tumor growth that’s not based on radiation or chemicals,” he added.

The “newest and weirdest” cancer therapy Cohen plans to discuss at the cafe involves genetically modifying a patient’s own T Cells and deploying them like a Trojan Horse to smuggle more cancer-fighting capacity into the body.

“About 10 years ago, someone came up with the idea of taking a T Cell out of a cancer patient, implanting it with anti-cancer antibodies and other genes and creating enhanced T Cells that could bind better to cancer cells,” he said.

“Now we can grow these special modified T Cells, called CAR-T Cells, in a lab and take, say, 10,000 original cells and turn them into several billion super T Cells with enhanced cancer-seeking receptors.”

Cohen added that this type of therapy is most effective when deployed using so-called Killer T Cells – a specific kind of T Cell that has the ability to bind to any cell in the human body and convince it to self-destruct.

“Killer T Cells are really incredible, like something out of a spy movie,” he said. “It takes only about four seconds of contact to get that message across, and the other cell goes into a death spiral over the course of the next minute.

“There’s no drug that is that effective or has anywhere near that potential,” he added.

Cohen was born in Montreal, Canada, and attended McGill University for his bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and medical degrees. He completed a residency at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, followed by postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Colorado Medical School in Denver and at Mill Hill in London, England. As a professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, he has earned the Excellence in Teaching Award 20 times to date and Teacher of the Year honors on five occasions. Cohen was MSU’s inaugural Cafe Scientifique speaker in 2004 and played instrumental roles in founding Cafe Scientifique programs in both Denver and Bozeman.

Cafe Scientifique provides a relaxed setting for people to learn about current scientific topics. The concept started in England in 1998 and has spread to a handful of locations in the United States. Following a short presentation by a scientific expert, the majority of time is reserved for lively conversation, thoughtful questions and respectful dialogue. Refreshments are provided free of charge.

Housed at MSU, Montana INBRE and COBRE are each Institutional Development Award (IDeA) Programs from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under grant numbers P20GM103474 and GM103500, respectively.

Contact Bill Stadwiser with Montana INBRE at 406-994-3360 or william.stadwiser@montana.edu for more information about the Cafe Scientifique concept or check the web at http://www.inbre.montana.edu/cafe/index.html.

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