On Christmas day in 2000, Dr. Albert B. Deisseroth got an unexpected but very welcomed gift. Going into the lab to check on a group of mice that a month earlier had been inoculated with an experimental cancer vaccine, he and his assistant discovered the mice showed no signs of cancer. They were elated. But a greater treat was yet to come.
A year later, the mice were examined again. They still showed no signs of cancer. The vaccine worked. Known as an adenoviral vector, the vaccine had triggered the natural immune system in the mice to attack specific types of cancer cells.
Now, under a Translational Research Grant from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Deisseroth and his Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center (SKCC) associates will be conducting additional studies in partnership with Sharp HealthCare to determine if the vaccine will be as effective in humans as it was in the mice.
This is just one of many programs the anti-cancer crusader has initiated since taking the helm of SKCC in 2001 as president and chief executive. Since then, the employee count has gone from 110 to 160 and grants have doubled to the $20 million range.
Deisseroth had been the director of the genetic therapy program at Yale University's School of Medicine, but left that for San Diego because of the flexibility offered by a private institute.
"I was in one of the best environments in the world at Yale," Deisseroth said. "But here there's a tremendous facility in implementing these types of strategies, moving therapies from the bench to the bedside."
It's something Deisseroth set his sights on while still a boy, when the family physician called at his family's home.
"He was always so compassionate, so wonderfully supportive to our family, and I bonded with that ideal," Deisseroth said.
Later, when he entered the university, he realized the power of science and wanted to be part of the unfolding drama devoted to understanding the biology of the human cell and creating better forms of therapy. That's what continues to drive Deisseroth and his SKCC colleagues -- they want their research to have an impact, to improve the lives of others.
"We are confronted by the stark reality of people dying, of having their lives shattered," he said. "Our ultimate goal is to be able to prevent human disease through science."
To that end, SKCC engages in four critical areas of research under Deisseroth's leadership: genomics, cancer cell biology, vascular targeting and immunotherapeutic targeting.
For instance, the promising results of Deisseroth's cancer vaccine research were published in the journal, Blood, in November 2004. The article describes how tumor antigens are activated to signal the body's immune system to initiate an attack on the tumor or cancer cells.
"This tricks the immune system into mobilizing the body's natural defenses against cancers of the breast, prostate, lung, colon and ovary," he explained. What's more, in contrast to chemotherapy and radiation, this would be a nontoxic therapy.
A more effective treatment for breast cancer is now possible as a result of techniques developed by Dan Mercola, M.D., Ph.D., and Michael McClelland, Ph.D., co-authors of a paper published in the scientific journal Molecular Cell in November 2004. The scientists have devised a method for identifying the genes that produce resistance to one of medicine's major cancer drugs.
What's more, a breakthrough discovery by SKCC researchers holds the promise of taking treatment of several types of cancer to a much higher level of safety and effectiveness. The identification of unique biomarkers in the blood vessels of solid tumors in laboratory rats allowed researchers, using antibodies, to direct toxic radiation therapy to cancer cells without harming normal tissue.
It's as if they identified a ZIP code for the cancer and can now mail nearly all the drug to that ZIP code exclusively to increase tumor destruction while eliminating side effects. The results of the research, led by SKCC Scientific Director Jan E. Schnitzer, M.D., were published in the scientific journal Nature in June 2004.
Genomics research led by SKCC Associate Professor Gennadi V. Glinsky, M.D., Ph.D., led to the discovery of gene clusters -- known as biomarkers -- that can be used to predict the likelihood of therapy failure and survival in cancer patients, including those with breast or prostate cancer.
In addition, the same science used in cancer research led to recent discoveries at SKCC that will contribute to the development of a more effective vaccine for typhoid, a virulent bacterial infection that afflicts millions worldwide.
Still, these great discoveries notwithstanding, it's the prospect of developing cancer vaccines that truly excites Deisseroth -- like that Christmas gift he got five years ago.
"The ultimate utility of all of our science is not in treatment, but in prevention," he said.
Percival is president of Scribe Communications.