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Dr. Albert Deisseroth

Deisseroth developing new generation of cancer therapeutics

Dr. Albert Deisseroth is not just the man responsible for steering a staff of 142 people at one of the country's leading cancer research centers. His big job as president and chief executive of the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center in La Jolla is leading the way to a whole new generation of cancer therapeutics and vaccination that are less toxic than chemotherapy.

Deisseroth came to the center seven years ago from Yale University, where he was a professor, chief of medical oncology and associate director of the Yale Cancer Center for Clinical Research.

"San Diego is a trendsetter in new therapies for human diseases of all kinds," Deisseroth said. "I came here because I thought the opportunity existed to create a whole new generation of therapeutics."

Deisseroth's team spent 2007 establishing a new brain cancer research program, preparing for clinical trials of a new brain cancer immunotherapy and breast cancer vaccine, opening a new $24 million research facility and founding Vaxtate Inc. in the United Kingdom to fund the center's prostate cancer vaccine trial, which also begins in 2008.

The breast cancer vaccine would work like any other, by relying on the body's immune response to build up protection for a particular source of infection. Initial tests are being conducted on breast cancer patients who have relapsed. Deisseroth believes the vaccine could be available in two to three years, and will be particularly useful for senior citizens whose immune systems typically don't respond well to vaccination. That's because the vaccine triggers a more potent immune response and targets the immune system's attack on the newly discovered tumor stem cells, which can be resistant to chemotherapy.

According to the center, this is the first tumor stem cell vaccine developed.

The breast cancer vaccine resulted from experiments conducted with mice, which led to the breakthrough discovery that an immune response against specific tumor cells can be activated. Because cancer cells grow internally, the body is slower to respond than it would with viruses and bacteria. To get around this complication, the vaccine cloaks a cold virus with a marker for aggressive breast cancer cells known as MUC-1.

The trials are being funded with a $250,000 grant from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which has contributed more than $1.5 million to Deisseroth's research during the past seven years. The trials begin in 2008 at the University of California, Los Angeles and Sharp HealthCare, which is the center's clinical research partner.

All the center's therapies target cancer tissue instead of healthy tissue to reduce the side effects of cancer therapy. "Side affects are a major impediment to success with chemotherapy because of the devastating effects on normal tissue," Deisseroth said. "Sometimes the therapeutics can't get over the wall to the tumor tissue."

Founded in 1990, the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center is a nonprofit research institute dedicated to the development of advanced biological cancer treatments, such as gene therapy, angiostatic therapy, vaccine therapy and immunotherapy, and to making those treatments readily available to patients. According to the National Cancer Institute, the center is one of the top three cancer centers in the United States in the application of genomics and proteomics to the treatment of specific cancers.

Hockmuth is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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