For decades scientists have speculated that our immune system should have a natural capacity to detect and destroy cancer cells. Current breakthroughs in cancer immunotherapy have been based on studies published by my own laboratory and by other labs which show that cancer cells have developed protective mechanisms to evade being recognized and destroyed by our body's immune cells. New approaches to disable these mechanisms are much needed.
As a physician-scientist I am committed to fostering links between basic research and the development of broadly applicable clinical therapeutics. I consider myself very fortunate indeed to have received scientific training and mentoring in preeminent discovery laboratories from world leading scientists in the field of pathology, molecular biology, stem cell research and infectious diseases. My research training has been broad and began when I was an undergraduate student in Pathology at Edinburgh University in Scotland. I subsequently completed my PhD and trained in the field of the molecular genetics of complement. My first postdoctoral research fellowship was at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute where I helped develop the first lentiviral vector for gene therapy and explored specific aspects of the immune pathogenesis of HIV/AIDS. As a physician-scientist the two worlds of science and clinical medicine have always overlapped and my objective is to be able to translate my discoveries from the laboratory bench to the patient's bedside.
Shortly after I was recruited to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), I made a novel observation that has shaped my research interests. My colleagues and I discovered that immune T cells can actively migrate away from a chemokine, a small signaling protein which previously have been shown to only attract and recruit immune cells during inflammation. We named this novel phenomenon "fugetaxis" (fugere -- to flee from; taxis -- movement). The implication of this discovery has been very broad. My team and I have already demonstrated that a specific fugetaxin (an immune cell repellent) can be used to protect transplanted islet cells in diabetic models from being rejected by our immune cells. Our studies have shown that once transplanted, these islets begin to produce insulin and can regulate the level of glucose in the blood. We have also used a reversed model to enhance immune activity and orchestrate interactions between specific targets (such as tumor cells) and our own body's natural defense mechanisms.
Five years ago I was offered the opportunity to create the MGH Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center (VIC). VIC's mission is to accelerate the pace of discovery, development and actualization of vaccine and immunotherapy treatments for infectious diseases and cancer. We are bringing together scientists, physicians, business professionals and private philanthropists to leverage our expertise and government support and to expedite the discovery process. We have already supported a number of preclinical projects that have reinforced our mission including a development of a novel method to enhance and improve vaccine efficacy, new immune therapies to fight ovarian cancer in patients who are resistant to standard therapy, and most recently, a new broadly applicable vaccine platform for emerging infectious diseases and cancer that could be assembled and delivered to patients in a short amount of time. We select our projects based on their potential for genuine breakthroughs and realistic positive clinical impact.
I am thrilled that my research efforts and my novel approaches to the development of cancer vaccines and therapeutics have been recognized this year by the one hundred. I consider it a great honor to receive this award.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the one hundred, in conjunction with the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. Each year, the one hundred honors 100 Everyday Amazing individuals and groups -- caregivers, researchers, philanthropists, advocates and volunteers from around the globe -- who are celebrating hope and inspiring action in the cancer community. To see all other posts in the series, read here. For more information about the one hundred, read here. Do you know someone who's making a difference in the fight against cancer? Read here to nominate them for the one hundred.