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Exploring the promise and challenges of cancer immunotherapy

Crystal L. Mackall, MD, Professor Pediatrics & Medicine, Associate Director, Stanford Cancer Institute, on Friday, September 2, 2016. ( Norbert von der Groeben / Stanford School of Medicine )The immune system is primed to protect the body from outside invaders, like viruses and bacteria. But can the immune system also be trained to protect against invaders from the inside, like cancer cells?

That’s the key question behind the rapidly expanding field of cancer immunotherapy. As Stanford’s Crystal Mackall, MD, explains in this recent Q&A in Stanford Medicine News, there have been some remarkable advances in recent years in which scientists have been able to manipulate the immune system to destroy malignant cells. In some cases, patients who have tried other therapies unsuccessfully are being brought back to life by these new approaches.

“We were seeing patients whose leukemia was resistant to all previous therapies be put into remission, to the point where you couldn’t find any leukemia within a month of first treatment and with just one dose. So this was above and beyond anything I’d ever seen – or anything I’d ever imagined,” said Mackall, a professor of pediatrics and of medicine.

Her success involved children with leukemia, some 70 to 90 percent of whom have responded to treatment. Now her goal is to extend that success to both adults and children with other forms of the disease, including solid tumors.

“Probably the area I feel most passionately about – that I’m really trying to push the envelope on – is how we can make this incredibly dramatic result in childhood leukemia apply to other diseases,” she said.

Mackall is the lead investigator at Stanford for the new Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, launched earlier this year with a $250 million investment by entrepreneur and philanthropist Sean Parker. The institute involves leading scientists from six academic institutions, including Stanford Medicine.

As Mackall notes in the Q&A, the institute’s goal is hasten discoveries by providing resources for research and clinical trials, which are very costly, and by bringing together scientists to pursue a larger goal. An effort of this magnitude also can raise public awareness, spur investment in the field and encourage people to take advantage of clinical trials in immunotherapy, several of which are ongoing at Stanford, she said.

Previously: Stanford Medicine to join $250 million Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy"We're feeling the ground shaking under our feet": Stanford oncologist talks cancer immunotherapy and Immunotherapy: New hope in treating cancer
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

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