World-renowned cancer researcher Dr. Nora Disis spoke to the public about her medical research on ways to develop vaccines to fight cancers, Thursday night in the Hemmingson Ballroom. The event was the first lecture in a new series presented by the UW School of Medicine-Gonzaga University Regional Health Partnership.
Disis specializes in translational medical research at the UW School of Medicine, which is discovery-based work that eventually ends up in application or clinical trials to improve human health.
Her research involves a different approach than chemotherapy or radiation, because the goal is to harness the power of the body’s own immune system by educating it and pushing it to fight the growing cancer on its own.
According to Disis, radiation must be directed locally, but T cells of the body – the white blood cells that recognize and kill invading pathogens – can spread anywhere and everywhere through our blood stream.
Studies of tumors have shown that T cells are already there, which means they know there’s an immunogenic protein, but something is preventing the T cells from attacking. As it turns out, the tumor is releasing an immunosuppressant signal that tells T cells “don’t attack, we are self.” Because of this, drugs are being developed to block those secretions. There needs to be a way for the T cells to see the antigen without receiving the “turn off” signal.
“Immune checkpoint inhibitor drugs let the immune response that’s already in the tumor grow more rapidly,” Disis said. “We’ve seen patients with melanoma, lung cancer and lymphoma actually have very significant benefits from these drugs, which work just by making the immune system work better.”
As gene sequencing techniques are advancing and becoming more common with companies like 23andMe, there are opportunities to sequence the genome of a self-protein and use that to create a “barcode” of vaccine hotspots. By overloading these fragments of DNA and focusing on the biological drivers causing cancer to grow, we may be able to stimulate an immune response.
“If we can get to a tumor early, we can identify those biological drivers,” Disis said. “If we can prime an immune response against those proteins, we can have a very good chance of preventing tumors from coming back.”
Some people may react negatively to the idea of vaccines curing cancer because of the recent spotlight on the anti-vaccine movement, even though the study connecting vaccines and autism was debunked and thrown out.
“To me, the anti-vaccine story is a tragic story,” Disis said. “The researcher who published those studies made up every single bit of that research, but the damage it did in terms of people not wanting to vaccinate their children is really egregious. Vaccines for infectious disease have been touted by almost everyone as the single greatest impact on human health.”
According to Disis, cancer treatment has changed over 100 percent in the last decade because previous federal administrations have increased funding for cancer research, allowing incredible discoveries to be made. However, recent struggles with federal funding are beginning to slow things down.
“People are not getting funded, people are finding other jobs outside of academia like going into industry, and we have young scientists not choosing academic research because they don’t see a future there,” Disis said. “The entire academic system, which has really driven all these new discoveries, is in a crisis right now.”
Although funding may be thin temporarily, Disis wants to emphasize there will always be a way, and young scientists shouldn’t give up on their goals.
“We need people on this campus to take that risk, to have that passion to say ‘I’m passionate about improving human health, I’m passionate about improving the environment, and I’m passionate about doing it in a way that is not influenced by others so that what is truth is going to dictate the direction I take,’” Disis said. “Please consider science, please consider becoming a professor, it is the hardest and best job in the world. You’ll make an impact that’s felt by thousands.”
Disis is more of a research supervisor now due to her incredible experience, but she looks back fondly on her days as a young researcher spending quiet nights setting up experiments in the laboratory.
“My favorite part of the work in my whole lifetime was nights underneath the hood, setting up a complex experiment with your hands,” Disis said. “You really have to pay attention to what you’re doing because it’s very complex, and you have to make absolutely sure everything is pristine. And to me, there’s a kind of ballet in that, a rhythm in that. It’s just the most satisfying thing.”
Upcoming research in Disis’ field includes examining the way our gut flora impact our immune system function and how we can develop vaccines by modulating the bacteria present in our stomachs. This research may lead to ways to turn off a type of inflammatory response and squash autoimmunity.
Rachael Snodgrass is the opinion editor. Follow her on Twitter @rachaelreneeee.