Wagner: Will SC help turn off the engine of cancer?

08/01/2013 12:00 AM

07/31/2013 4:43 PM

New medical therapies are turning off the engine of cancer inside the human body and making progress toward eliminating most cancers over the next few decades. If South Carolina is willing to recognize its existing centers of medical excellence and fund serious research in this field, it will see companies and clinics quickly spring up to support and apply these advances.

Despite billions of dollars spent over decades on cancer research, death rates for many of the most common cancers have remained stubbornly close to the rates of half a century ago. It often has seemed that the more we’ve discovered about the cancers that plague us, the more we’ve found them to be simply too complex to defeat.

Surgical interventions are not much more sophisticated than they were a hundred years ago — removing threatening tumors and tissues, albeit in a much safer modern environment, and then maintaining vigil while we wait to see if the dreaded cancer returns.

But something profoundly different is emerging: personalized medicine that is customized to defeat your particular cancer. The latest scientific breakthroughs indicate that everyone’s cancer is unique, and hence the therapy should be personalized as well. Personalized immunotherapy begins with the molecular character of your cancer, designing a tumor-specific silver bullet that uses your body’s own immunity defenses to seek and destroy the cancer that threatens your life.

Companies and clinics will quickly spring up to support and apply these medical therapies in states that are willing to fund serious research. And South Carolina already has a great starting point in its centers of excellence in advanced personalized medicine and cancer genetics at Clemson University and the Greenville Health System.

The rash of national news stories about the progress of these immunotherapies usually quotes the medical doctors who are testing and deploying these new techniques. In fact, the real breakthroughs have come from biology and chemistry.

James Watson and Francis Crick, who first cracked the structure of DNA in any meaningful way, were microbiologists. And those of us who joined the fight soon after Watson and Crick have stood on their shoulders to make additional breakthroughs. I was privileged to partner with other researchers to develop the tools and techniques now used to assemble recombinant DNA molecules and direct their controlled expression within host organisms — all important advances that gave way to the current revolution in genetic medicine, a revolution that re-directed my research to personalized cancer immunotherapy.

The complexity of each tumor is such that we now realize the dreams of one-size-fits-all medicine are unrealistic. Chemotherapies have indiscriminately taken down other fast-growing cell systems such as those supporting hair follicles and the lining of the intestine. There’s a better way now with immunotherapy that shows a patient’s own immune cells how to defeat the cancer.

These advanced immunotherapies are as far from what’s on a hospital’s pharmacy shelves as medicines can get. We are deconstructing the very tumor that threatens your life, decoding its molecular characteristics and sending your own vigilant T-cells to destroy the systems that supported its spread.

For more than half a century, I have been able to participate and partner in this battle at Clemson, the Greenville Health System, Cornell University Medical School, the Sloan Kettering Institute and Cambridge University, and I met and knew those pioneers who finally deciphered the fundamental programming of human life, our DNA and RNA coding. I was lucky to find partners who could turn that knowledge into sophisticated molecular biology tools and methods that allow us to assemble infinitely tiny recombinant DNA molecules and direct their replication within host organisms.

But none of that is as exciting or as promising as what we are now doing with those amazing new tools — deploying reliable and sure techniques that will in this decade or the next finally eliminate the second-most devastating illness on the planet: cancer.

Dr. Wagner’s Perseus immunotherapy vaccine has gone through Phases I and II clinical trials for the treatment of melanoma, renal cell carcinoma and neuroblastoma and is the first such vaccine that was developed entirely in South Carolina; contact him at tom.wagner@perseuspci.com.

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