Telluride Science: Cutting-edge Cancer Treatments, Webinar 3/8!

Telluride Science: Cutting-edge Cancer Treatments, Webinar 3/8!

On March 8, 4 p.m. (MST), Telluride Science hosted an exciting webinar all about cutting-edge cancer treatments. The program featured Dr. Peter Pisters, President, MD Anderson Cancer Treatment Center, and Dr. Katy Rezvani, Department of Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy at MD Anderson Cancer Center, both involved with the institution’s “Moon Shot” targeting cancer.

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Dr. Peter WT Pisters, President, MD Anderson.


Dr. Katy Rezvani, MD Anderson.

“Cell mutation takes place all the time inside the body. All of us get cancers. You might well have one now. Most of these mutations die off, simply because they are too mutant to survive or because the immune system identifies them as alien and destroys them…It’s tempting to anthropomorphize the cancer and think of it as cunning, or strategic, but really, cancer is a product of the same evolutionary processes that lead to our own survival, or that of any other species or organism…Over the course of our lifetimes, we’re being thrown tons of twists by malignant cells, and it takes only a handful to turn on the immune system’s brake and start a cascade of malignancy…,” from Matt Richtel’s must-read, “An Elegant Defense.”

Online sources say there are more than 200 types of cancer, each with a distinct signature, different signs and symptoms. Some cause early manifestations, even when the tumor has not grown and spread throughout the body. In other cases, the cancer remains silent until it is too late.

In all cases, cancer patients are looking for the Holy Grail, a cure.

The immune system’s “memory” allows it to remember what cancer cells look like, so it can target and eliminate the cancer if it returns.

In the run-up to the talk and to provide context, Dr. Rezvani answers a few key questions.

Q1: Please define cancer.

To understand what cancer is, it is important to understand that with very few exceptions, healthy cells have a finite lifespan and that they are programmed to die at a certain point. Normally, they are then replaced by younger healthier cells. However, if cells fail to die when they are supposed to, mistakes can arise in their genetic code that gives them a survival and growth advantage that will in time eventually make them immortal. This growing tissue then doesn’t function normally and can cause damage to healthy tissues in multiple ways such as by invading and killing surrounding tissues, or by migrating to other organs and causing damage (which is called metastasis).

Q2: Please describe the nexus of stem cell transplantation, cellular therapy and immune cell therapeutics or immunotherapy.

In the 50’s, Dr Don Thomas performed the first stem cell transplant to treat a patient with refractory leukemia. The idea at the time was that by giving a large dose of chemotherapy, leukemia cells and the bone marrow of the patient could be killed and replaced with stem cells from a healthy donor. The field subsequently came to the realization that the immune system of the donor can kill the leukemia cells that were not destroyed by the chemotherapy. From here on, the field of cell therapy was born. In a nutshell, therefore, immunotherapy is a treatment that harnesses the power of the immune system to kill cancer. Under this umbrella term, we include cell therapy where we grow and modify immune cells in the laboratory to recognize and kill cancer cells and give these cells to the patient.

Q3: Please define Crispr and is that germane to the work you are doing today?

A cell’s genetic code is like a huge book of instructions, with genes being words that dictate behavior and function, and this is the case for all living organisms. The more complex an organism, the more complicated is its genetic code. Crispr is a very sophisticated tool developed to remove or introduce genes from cells and is thus often called genetic scissors. We can use this tool in the research lab to eliminate or introduce a gene and see how this affects the cell function; we can also use it in patients where a genetic mutation has caused a disease. We can also use it in immunotherapy because sometimes immune cells have mechanisms of control that act as brakes and reduce their function; using Crispr we can delete the genes that control these brakes to increase the potency of immunotherapy. We are using this strategy in my laboratory and are planning to take it to the clinic soon.

Q4. Please talk a bit about your young life growing up in Iran, then England. Do you come from a family of doctors? Who or what set you on your professional path?

I was born in Iran, but because my father was a general in the Shah’s military, my family left the country soon after the 1979 Islamic revolution. As refugees, we were subsequently granted asylum in England. I went to school in Canterbury (just southeast of London) and was very lucky because my teachers were extremely supportive of my educational needs, helping me to become the first pupil from my school to be accepted to medical school. I do not come from a family of doctors, but ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to study medicine. In medical school I became fascinated by the complexity of the immune system, and after completing my clinical training in hem-oncology and stem cell transplantation in London, I moved to the NIH in Washington DC to do my postdoctoral work in cancer immunotherapy.

Q5. Please talk about MD Anderson’s Moon Shot to end cancer and your role in that initiative.

MD Anderson’s moonshot initiative was started nearly 10 years ago to bring together basic scientists, translational researchers, and clinicians with the common goal of finding a cure for cancer. This initiative was inspired by the same notion in the 60’s that focused the national effort to reach the moon. Since then, the moonshot programs at MD Anderson have made significant advances in cancer. I have been fortunate to have been supported and involved in the moonshot program since its inception. Moonshot supported our CAR NK cell programs as well as the viral-specific T cell strategy that I will be presenting at the webinar.

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