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Promise and Progress - 1997-2001 The Abeloff Era: Building on a Tradition of Excellence

Special Commemorative Issue: The Abeloff Era - Building Upon a Tradition of Excellence

1997-2001 The Abeloff Era: Building on a Tradition of Excellence

Date: April 1, 2007


Big describes the type of changes that marked the years 1997-2001. Researchers continued to revolutionize cancer testing and treatments. Outside of the lab, Sidney Kimmel made an unprecedented $150 million gift, big tobacco paid up and the Bunting Blaustein Cancer Research Building opened.

New Test for Colon Cancer

Researchers in the Vogelstein/ Kinzler lab develop new tests to detect pre-symptomatic colorectal tumors on the basis of mutant genes that escape into the stool or blood. They develop highly sophisticated technologies that can detect one mutant DNA molecule among 10,000 normal copies derived from non-cancer cells. These tests have the capacity to  revolutionize non-invasive testing for colon and other cancers and prevent hundreds of thousands of needless deaths.

The Art of Healing

The Kimmel Cancer Center, recognized as a leader in cancer research and care, gains recognition for its art and music program. With the vision of Center Director Martin Abeloff who wanted to create an environment with technology to heal the human body but also one that was nurturing and comforting to heal the human spirit, a unique art and music program is established. With the help of curators Ted Cohen and Peggy Heller, and  donor Lorraine Levin, the Center becomes home to an art collection of 122 pieces of museum quality artwork, including, water colors, prints, silk screens, photography, quilts, sculpture, and more from a variety of Maryland’s own artists.

A $40,000 Young Chang piano, donated by Steve Cohen, expands the  program to include musical performances each month. Later, the Center adds dance performances. 

Investigators Study Alternative Cancer Treatments

Can tart cherries alleviate cancer pain? Does prayer help heal African American women with breast cancer? Do Chinese herbs ward off prostate cancer? These are some of the questions Cancer Center investigators, including William Nelson, try to answer through an alternative medicine grant from the National Institutes of Health. The goal is to reconcile scientific method with alternative medicine treatments gaining in popularity.

Pancreas Cancer Vaccine

In early trials, a pancreatic cancer vaccine developed by Elizabeth Jaffee is found safe and effective in patients. This pioneering study leads to ongoingtrials that increase survival of one of the most lethal forms of cancer. Jaffee, collaborating with Dan Laheru, expands her original studies combining an immune-boosting vaccine with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation  therapy. The vaccine is made up of genetically engineered pancreatic cancer cells incapable of growing but programmed to trigger immune cells. Immune cells initially attracted to the vaccine site are then deployed to  patrol the rest of the patient’s body to seek out and destroy circulating  pancreatic cancer cells that could cause the disease to spread.At about two years into a study of 60 patients, 76 percent are still alive and 88 percent survive one year as compared to 42 percent and 63  percent, respectively, with standard therapies.

A Gene Finder at Work

Victor Velculescu, collaborating with Ken Kinzler, develops a revolutionary method for discovering gene mutations. Called SAGE, for serialized analysis of gene expression, the partially computerized method allows investigators to study thousands of genes simultaneously, measure their expression, and quickly identify the genetic differences between normal and cancer cells. It earns Popular Science’s Brilliant 10 Award as one of the 10 most important discoveries. Velculescu remains busy with a series of other discoveries. He identifies mutations in the PIK3CA genes and links them to the progression of colon and other cancers. The gene is now recognized as the most highly mutated oncogene (growth-promoting gene) in cancer and as a promising target for new therapies and diagnostic tests.

He discovers mutations in six colon cancer-related genes known as tyrosine phosphatases. They normally work by turning off tumor growth, but in colon cancer he finds that they are altered and don’t work. Since inactive proteins such as these are difficult to repair, the research team is working on targeting a related family of genes known to accelerate cellular events. Blocking these related proteins with drugs could counteract the effect of the altered genes.

Performing the first systematic analysis of a gene family in a human disease, Velculescu uncovers mutations in the tyronsine kinome. He then links the mutations to 30 percent of colon cancers. These genes are exciting  because they are known to be good potential targets for therapeutic intervention.

Cancer Center Gets a Name

In 2001, Sidney Kimmel, founder and chairman of Jones Apparel Group,  donates $150 million for cancer research and patient care—the largest gift ever to the University. In honor of this historic gift, the Johns Hopkins cancer center is named the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins. In making his gift, Kimmel calls Johns Hopkins one of the leading institutions in the world and a place he believes can make  meaningful advances in cancer.

Big Tobacco Pays Up

The Maryland Cigarette Restitution Fund (CRF), the name Maryland  legislators give to the state’s share of the $53 billion in penalties won in a 1990s lawsuit waged by states against U.S. cigarette manufacturers, is established. Johns Hopkins CRF, codirected by Martin Abeloff and John Groopman, is awarded an initial cancer research grant of $3.7 million dollars. With Maryland having some of the highest prostate cancer rates in the nation, the Center is awarded additional funds for prostate cancer education and screening in Baltimore City. Since the inception of the CRF in 2001, Johns Hopkins has been awarded more than $17.7 million in research and public health grants.

Saving a Voice

Results of an eight-year national clinical study lead to a change in the standard of care for larynx cancer patients when it shows that combining chemotherapy and radiation treatment at the same time offers patients with advanced cancer of the larynx, or voice box, the best chance of preserving their voices. Study director Arlene Forastiere finds that chemotherapy augments the effects of radiation. Standard options for this type of cancer called for surgical removal of the voice box, leaving patients unable to speak without the assistance of an electronic device. Other options were radiation therapy alone or chemotherapy followed by radiation. The study of 547 patients finds that using chemotherapy and radiation together  increases the potential of saving the voice box by almost 90 percent without adversely affecting survival rates.

Cooking Cancer Metastases

Throughout history, heat has been used for medical treatment. Heat is now taking a role in killing cancerous lesions that cannot be removed in the operating room. Called radio-frequency ablation, the treatment holds promise in patients with cancers that have spread to the liver, lungs, and other vital organs. GI cancer surgeon Michal Choti is among the first to perform the procedure at Johns Hopkins. He uses a thin electrical probe, releasing an array of wires from the tip of the probe into the lesion. An electrical current heats the wires to about 100°C, resulting in a slow but deadly burn of cancer cells.

The Making of a Cervical Cancer Vaccine

Building on the 1980s cancer immunology research of T.-C. Wu in the  study of the diagnostics of HPV, Drew Pardoll works with Connie Trimble to develop and test a therapeutic cervical cancer vaccine. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is responsible for the majority of cervical cancers, say researchers. Wu found that HPV cells have well-defined antigens on their surface—tiny bits of protein that differentiate them from normal cells and prompt the immune system to attack. These antigens,Wu thought, were a dream come true for the immunologist who could aim a cancer vaccine directly at them. So, he enlists the help of Pardoll, a  cancer vaccine expert, who develops a vaccine that he believes will search out and destroy HPV-containing cervical cancer cells.

Pardoll, in turn, enlists the help of Connie Trimble, a cervical cancer expert. In Baltimore, cervical cancer death rates are three times the national average, so Trimble establishes the Cervical Diseases Center to combat these high rates. After six years of collaboration with Wu and Pardoll, Trimble treats her first patient with the vaccine. Now she uses the vaccine in clinical trials to successfully treat patients with precancerous cervical lesions and cervical cancer.

Lethal Gene Mutation Makes a Cancer More Treatable

A gene mutation, called FLT3, first cloned by pediatric oncologist and leukemia expert Donald Small, promises to transform the most common form of adult leukemia from one of the most lethal types of leukemia to one of the most treatable. The leukemia is acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a treatment resistant form of leukemia characterized by a mutation of the FLT3 gene. Small and collaborator Doug Smith used a drug to block the action of the gene, making it appear to cells as if the mutation never existed. Small later finds the gene to be a culprit in certain autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis.

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