UNBREAKABLE BOND: Jeffrey and Janet Gelfand
When Jeffrey Gelfand, MD, senior scientist at the Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center (VIC) at the MGH, came to the hospital in 1999 intent on developing international programs to improve health care, he had no idea his work would hit so close to home.
“Nine months later, my wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer,” says Gelfand. “My personal war on cancer began.”
Over the course of six years, Janet Gelfand was treated at the MGH. “As we know the long-term efficacy of standard therapy for this disease can be very limited,” says Mark Poznansky, MD, PhD, director of VIC. “So additional early forms of immune therapy were attempted and Janet bravely tried these, but unfortunately succumbed to cancer.”
Inspired by her memory, Gelfand and his MGH colleagues set out to create a vaccine to attack tumors in patients already diagnosed with cancer. “We developed a cancer immunotherapeutic agent named after my wife called Jantibody.”
On March 5, the work describing this novel approach to cancer immunotherapy was published in the Journal of Hematology & Oncology.
“Some approaches to creating cancer vaccines begin by extracting a patient’s own immune cells, priming them with tumor antigens, and returning them to the patient, a process that is complex and expensive,” says Poznansky, senior author of the report. “Our study describes a practical, potentially broadly applicable and lower-cost approach that could be used by oncologists not just in facilities able to harvest and handle patients’ cells.”
The MGH team’s vaccine stimulates the patient’s own dendritic cells – a type of immune cell that monitors an organism’s internal environment for the presence of viruses or bacteria. It ingests and digests pathogens encountered and displays antigens from those pathogens on their surface to direct the activity of other immune cells.
“Many patients with advanced cancers don’t have enough functioning immune cells to be harvested to make a vaccine, but our protein can be made in large amounts to work with the immune cells patients have remaining,” says Gelfand, the study’s co-author. “We have created a potentially much less expensive approach to making a therapeutic cancer vaccine that generates an immune response against multiple antigens. Now if we can combine this with newly described ways to remove the immune system’s ‘brakes’ – regulatory functions that normally suppress persistent T-cell activity – the combination could dramatically enhance cancer immunotherapy.”
Poznansky says this approach could ultimately be used to target several different types of cancer, including ovarian and pancreatic cancers, and mesothelioma. “Janet’s struggle with ovarian cancer and Jeff’s dedication to finding new treatments have been a major motivation for our team to accelerate the development of novel immune-based therapies, and to contribute to ongoing research efforts in this new and exciting field.”
Read more articles from the 03/14/14 Hotline issue.