When it comes to discussing the realities of current cancer therapies, Christopher Gamper, M.D., PhD., doesn't mince words. "Conventional therapy knocks down the immune response. In a way, what we do to treat patients directly subverts what we're trying to accomplish," he says matter-of-factly, referring to the immune-suppressing effects of chemotherapy and radiation.
It's a grim reality that Dr. Gamper refuses to accept lightly. In fact, he's chosen to dedicate his research in pediatric oncology to finding alternate, less toxic methods of treating cancer. Subsequently, he's honing in on immunotherapy—a method of treatment that focuses on triggering the body's immune system to recognize and respond to cancerous cells.
Though it sounds like a fairly straightforward concept, Dr. Gamper cautions that immunology, as well as patients' response to it, is an extremely complex matter. "We take the immune system for granted, but the actual sophistication behind this seemingly mundane thing is incredibly complicated," Dr. Gamper says.
Applying immunology to patients with cancer is particularly daunting, Dr. Gamper explains, because their systems are already immune-suppressed. "The trick," he says, "is how to uncover chinks in the armor, so to speak, so we can turn off the defense mechanism of tumors."
While researching new ways to treat cancer, Dr. Gamper also focuses on improving how existing therapies are administered. "We want to do what we can to spare toxicity [inherent in chemotherapy treatment]—not just to have patients survive cancer," he says.
This pursuit involves analyzing genetic differences that may explain why not all patients respond similarly to chemotherapy. "Some patients exhibit an excellent response rate to treatment. Others may have a genetic factor that predisposes them to a high rate of relapse. We're looking at changes in therapy based on these differences," Dr. Gamper says.
As he soldiers on to find treatments that are less toxic and ultimately more effective for children with cancer, Dr. Gamper is buoyed by the strength of the families he encounters. "They say to us, 'I want to help other people in the world learn more.'" He believes that it's this spirit of generosity, whereby parents enroll their children in clinical trials knowing they personally may not reap the benefits, that has hastened the progress of pediatric oncology.
"Scientific progress has exploded: our understanding of genetic underpinnings, the potential for treatments to turn off genetic switches. We're just beginning to incorporate these new strategies that hold out the most hope," Dr. Gamper says.