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Immune therapy: Training the body’s immune system to kill cancer

William Kerr, PhD, in his lab at Upstate. (PHOTO BY WILLIAM MUELLER)

William Kerr, PhD, in his lab at Upstate. (PHOTO BY WILLIAM MUELLER)


Rarely does a primary tumor kill. In cancer, death is more typical after the cancer spreads, or metastasizes.

Upstate‘s William Kerr, PhD, is a pediatric cancer researcher focused on making the immune system better at killing cancer. After a patient undergoes cancer treatment, he wants to be able to "mop up" any residual cancer cells or cancer stem cells that escape surgery or conventional therapies to cause relapse later on.

“You might not think those last bits are important, but that‘s what leads to relapse a couple months or a couple years down the road,” he says. Already his work has demonstrated how deactivating a gene called Ship-1, which helps cancer cells grow, can allow NK cells -- short for natural killer cells -- to locate and kill cancer cells in the body.

He and Matthew Gumbleton, an MD/PhD student working in his lab, wondered if temporarily turning off the Ship-1 gene would make the NK cells hyper responsive, turning them into super killers? And would that wipe out tumor cells more efficiently?

“It was a bit of a wild, counterintuitive idea,” Kerr admits, “but Matt and I tried it -- and it worked.”

Working with laboratory mice, the researchers showed they could extend survival in the case of lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes.

Now, Kerr has been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, which will allow him to continue his work with Eric Vivier, director of the prominent Center for Immunology in Marseilles, France. The two researchers will collaborate in person for six months, starting in September. They will focus on using small molecules or chemicals that remove the brakes that limit the NK cells' killing of tumor cells.

cancercaresummerHealthLink on Air logoThis article appears in the summer 2016 issue of Cancer Care magazine. Hear an interview with Kerr on his research into prompting the body‘s immune system to kill cancer cells and the accelerated efforts of American scientists to solve cancer by 2020.