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Cancer

Thanks to groundbreaking discoveries at the Emory Vaccine Center originally focusing on infectious diseases, new approaches have reinvigorated the cancer field and are opening exciting new doors for treatment.

Immunotherapy is a recent addition to the cancer treatment arsenal and operates by using a patient’s own immune system to fight the cancer. For decades cancer immunotherapy held great promise that was never realized in clinical trials.

These new approaches have recently generated impressive results in prostate cancer, lung cancer and melanoma, and several new treatments are under clinical investigation at Emory and around the world. Emory University is uniquely positioned to accelerate research of this new treatment approach with collaboration between two world-class research departments, Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute, an NCI Designated Cancer Center, and the Emory Vaccine Center, a long-time leader in vaccine design and immunology research.

T cells are some of the most potent weapons of the human immune system. Viruses such as HIV and hepatitis C can sustain infections partly because they lure T cells into pursuit, then push them into exhaustion.  A similar pattern has been found with some cancers, in which T cells infiltrate tumors but don't attack the tumor cells. Dr. Rafi Ahmed and his colleagues at the Emory Vaccine Center were the first to show that during chronic viral infections, human T cells are present but don't attack.  His lab later found that a molecule called PD-1 was responsible for keeping T-cells in their inactive, or exhausted state. By blocking the PD-1 molecule, T cells are freed to fight against the disease. This has shown very promising results in clinical trials to treat advanced cancer patients across multiple tumor types.

Researchers and physicians at Emory are leaders of the worldwide search to answer some fundamental questions:

  • How can personalized vaccines be developed to specifically recognize the unique features of each patient’s tumor?
  • Can molecules like PD-1 that prevent a patient’s own immune system from destroying a tumor be blocked to allow immune mediated killing of tumors?
  • Can cell biomarkers be identified to predict immune responses in the lab, speeding development and targeting the most successful approaches before clinical trials even begin?
  • How can immunotherapy be combined with existing cancer drugs and treatments to improve patient outcomes and save lives?