Brian Baker, Rev. John A. Zahm Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, was recently awarded a $4 million, 5-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study how to best engineer a patient’s own T cells in their immune system to target the patient’s specific cancer.
Over the last decades, immunologists have been gaining greater understanding of the relationship between cancer and the immune system—more specifically, how the immune system defends against cancer. For example, immunologists know that patients with weakened immune systems (recipients of organ transplants, HIV patients, etc.) have greater occurrences of cancer. The question “How does cancer escape the immune system, take hold, and progress?” has been studied for many years and has led to new approaches, including successful new drug therapies like the immunotherapy treatment former President Jimmy Carter received that has rendered his metastatic melanoma in remission. Understanding the relationship between the immune system and cancer has led to these new drug therapies, which “take the brakes off” the immune system to allow a more complete and effective anti-cancer immune response.
The next frontier of immunotherapy involves custom engineering immune treatments for each patient. According to Baker, “An important class of cells in the immune system are cytotoxic T cells—killer T cells—because they attack and kill viruses, pathogens, and even tumors. What we are working toward is engineering those T cells to target a specific cancer with great efficiency and potency.”