Let’s Talk About Cancer

Cancer affects all of us in some way. When I gave a lecture on cancer immunotherapy I posed this question to my audience: “how many of you are impacted directly or indirectly by cancer?” Nearly every person in the audience raised their hand.

For this post I wanted to introduce myself to the community, at first by engaging in dialogue about the recent events involving school shootings. However, I decided to leave that for another conversation so I can research this topic further and truly provide a complete perspective. In the future, I hope to share ideas on a variety of subjects and areas including: politics, history, science, technology, anime, A.I., robots and some non-fiction.

Instead I decided to focus on my strong passion to understand and advance cancer therapy. Cancer is in my family and in my wife’s family – so my battle against cancer is very personal. I am a research scientist and not a physician. But the nature of my work is translational in nature and impacts patients.

I love science and research because new advancements and discoveries can really make a difference in the lives of those who are in need and have no other options. I undertook my studies, and commitment to this area of biomedical research out of personal experiences with family members who suffered and eventually died from cancer, and my conviction to try and understand cancer from a very fundamental perspective.

Cancer is not a single disease but many. And a single type of cancer (say brain cancer – my area of expertise) can be quite heterogeneous at the cellular level. Cells normally grow, divide and die. Cancer really is both unrestrained cellular growth and enhanced proliferative capacity. The causes can be genetic or environmental. Today we understand much and have made considerable advancements to improve the lives of those living with cancer and those that are in remission, and those that exhibit recurrence. A variety of clinical trials are underway to investigate the efficacy of many experimental stage therapies. Currently, I am a part of an extraordinary group of people who make it their mission to develop a new therapeutic strategy called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cells. I don’t consider myself extraordinary by any means. The patients in the studies are also truly the amazing ones. However, I am just a regular person (scientist) driven to understand and ultimately treat cancer. What is this therapy that is making an impact? OK, I’ll give this a try.

Our blood (human blood) contains a variety of cells (blood cells [for carrying oxygen], platelets [involved in clotting] and immune cells [cells that help to protect and eliminate foreign invaders that get into our bodies]). Within this set of immune cells are a special group of cells known as T-cells. There are two types of T-cells (a) Helper T-Cells and (b) Cytotoxic T-Cells. Helper T-cells help to do a variety of functions including releasing factors that activate the immune system to eliminate foreign invaders or infected cells. Cytotoxic T-cells are responsible for killing infected cells through the release of chemicals that destroy infected cells. CAR-T cells are made up of both of these cells but they are a little different – these cells are genetically modified to express a protein on their surface that can recognize molecules on the surface of cancer cells
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mXADrg_ckhI ). Upon recognition of that cell the CAR-cell then destroys that cell. You know how if you are sick you can take a drug like Tylenol to help  you feel better? Well, when one has cancer, one can be given CAR-T cells (a living drug) that specifically target and then destroy  one’s cancer based on molecules found on the cancer. Currently there are two FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved CAR-T cell therapies:

1. Kymriah for certain pediatric and young adult forms of acute lymphoblastic leukemia

2. Yescarta for certain types of B-cell lymphomas

These therapies have a hefty price tag: Kymriah ($475,000) and Yescarta ($373,000). However, as the market expands, and more competition arises, these costs should decrease. But I guess this conversation is for another time. The revolution against cancer has a new weapon that can help many people. Despite these available therapies and others, challenges remain. There are  a lot of experimental therapies currently under clinical trial. I also suggest  this  site belonging to the American Cancer Society. Anyone can make a difference. And every second of life is precious one.

Thank you for allowing me to share my passion for this field with you. Until next time. Same bat time. Same bat channel. “Live long and prosper!”

[ Funny story: when The Husband first started working on these CARs, I thought he was talking about vehicles. I spent weeks wondering when he had switched from science to mechanics!]

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