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Fighting Cancer on Two Fronts

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center have made important advances on two fronts of the war against cancer. In one, a team working with colleagues from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has found a quick new way to boost the immune system's cancer-fighting forces -- in other words, to
Cancer Illustration by John S. Dykes spacer
make a cancer vaccine. The procedure involves transforming the body's abundant monocytes -- immune cells circulating in the blood -- into battle-ready dendritic cells, which play a key role in stimulating the immune system. While most people think of vaccines as something administered to patients before they contract a disease, cancer vaccines are designed to spur the immune system into attacking existing tumors.
   "Our procedure could be used to produce vaccines against cancers, including breast cancer, colon cancer, and melanoma," says Dr. Brian J. Czerniecki, assistant professor of surgery in the School of Medicine. He and Dr. Peter Cohen of the NCI will conduct a clinical trial with melanoma patients next spring. "We plan to kick-start the immune system of these patients by giving them melanoma-antigen-labeled dendritic cells," explains Czerniecki. "These cells will have the instructions to activate T cells to find the melanoma tumor and work at shrinking it." Czerniecki and his colleagues reported their findings in the October 15 issue of the Journal of Immunology.
   In the other discovery, a team led by Dr. Wafik S. El-Deiry, assistant professor of medicine and genetics, has identified a "death-receptor gene" that goes by the name "KILLER/DR5" and responds to chemotherapy and radiation by killing cancer cells. That discovery, says El-Deiry, "gives us new insight into how cancer cells treated with chemotherapy and radiation die."
   When the researchers introduced extra copies of the gene into colon- and liver-cancer cells in laboratory experiments, cell growth was completely stopped. According to El-Deiry, who is also an assistant investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, that finding suggests that "substitution or reactivation of KILLER/DR5 in cancer cells may be a reasonable strategy for killing those cells."
   The team's findings appeared in the October issue of Nature Genetics.

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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 12/11/97