Issue No. 2
Firing Up the Immune System to Fight Breast Cancer
When leisha emens decided to specialize in treating breast cancer patients, her goal was to bring new ideas to the field. As a physician-scientist, Emens continually works on innovative strategies to beat one of the most common causes of cancer for women and a cancer that still takes far too many lives.
Targeting the T-Cell
Emens understood that breast cancer cells “flew under the radar” of an individual’s immune system because the cancer cells developed from within a person’s own genetic makeup. So, these rogue cells didn’t send up flags that signaled they were actually bad and needed to be taken down. By building on her colleagues’ work in pancreas cancer, Emens constructed a vaccine using GM-CSF, to boost the immune system and irradiated cells to deliver them. GM-CSF is a type of protein known as a growth factor that your body produces to help increase the number of white blood cells, which is a key part of the immune system.
How it Works
The vaccine is injected under the skin and then it goes to work by drawing the attention of the immune cells, known as dendritic cells, to the vaccine injection site. Dendritic cells are the ones that send out the danger signals that arouse an immune response. Typically, dendritic cells don’t arouse the immune system when they encounter tumor cells because they don’t recognize the tumor cells as foreign. However, the breast cancer vaccine actually teaches the dendritic cells to recognize that tumor cells are different from normal cells and thus need to be attacked and destroyed. Using the vaccine in combination with chemotherapy enhances the vaccine’s ability to excite the immune system against cancer. Unfortunately, the science is not enough. Without funding support to advance discoveries and move them from the laboratory to the clinic, even the brightest physicians will be thwarted and their ideas will not become a reality.
The vaccine has been in clinical trials for patients with advanced disease and initial results have been promising. But, manufacturing the vaccine—a meticulous process Emens does onsite at Johns Hopkins,—requires funding. It’s a frustrating predicament. In order to test the vaccine in larger numbers of patients and with earlier stages of disease, she needs the resources to produce the drug and conduct the trials. But, fewer resources are available for this kind of innovative work. Emens is looking to private philanthropy to fill the void where government grants and pharmaceutical sponsors are missing. That’s where patients themselves have taken on the cause. Among them is Bershan Shaw, who owns and runs a New York City restaurant and has created a breast cancer Web-site called URAWarrior. To help promote awareness about the vaccine as well as help raise funds for it, she’s hosting an event and writing about it on her blog. For patients like Shaw who are battling this disease, sitting idly just isn’t an option. Your support of breast cancer immune therapy will help improve treatment and save lives. Go to hopkinskimmelcancercenter.org to make your gift and make a difference in the lives of women everywhere.