Immunotherapy discoveries are just part of the drug arsenal Kimmel Cancer Center scientists are helping to assemble. Nelson’s approach is to go after every vulnerability of the cancer cell. He has been in the business long enough to know that the cancer cell is as complex and crafty as they come. With all of the natural processes of cell division and growth at its disposal, the cancer cell is a master at exploiting these processes to find new ways to cheat death. His vision is to use new technologies and reveal the genetic miscues that drive each person’s cancer, and help find or develop drugs that either correct the miscues or shut them down. There are always going to be a small number of cancers so dependent on a particular genetic miscue that they may only need one approach. This is exciting when it happens, but it doesn’t apply to the majority of cancer patients.
Most experts agree that cancers, particularly those diagnosed at an advanced stage that have had decades to corrupt many cell processes to their benefit, will likely require combined therapies, including surgery, targeted therapies, immunotherapies and radiation therapies. “Gene mutations are like fingertips. You cut one off, and the cancer cells just work around it,” says Venu Raman, who is working on a drug that attacks cancer cells directly and also sensitizes them to radiation. Nelson believes a combined assault has the potential to disconnect cancer cells from their survival tools and finally overpower them.