At Mass General researchers are looking to immunotherapy, recently hailed as Science Magazine's "Breakthrough of the Year," as the next step in the fight against cancer.

Immunotherapy is the revolutionary next line of defense in the fight against cancer. For more than half a century, physicians treating patients with cancer had three options: surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. In the past decade, researchers at Mass General and leading institutions throughout the world have pioneered the development of targeted therapies, which utilize drugs to target specific genetic mutations that trigger cancer growth. Now a new method has emerged that is transforming oncology and providing new hope for thousands of patients with cancer. Recently hailed by Science Magazine as the “Breakthrough of the Year,” cancer immunotherapy is a form of treatment that allows the body to use its own immune system to fight tumors.

Since long before this recognition by Science Magazine, Mass General investigators have been pursuing research into cancer immunotherapy. One of these researchers is Shiv Pillai, MD, PhD, a geneticist with the MGH Center for Cancer Research. With help from Dr. Pillai and his colleagues, the Mass General Cancer Center is leading the charge in finding new ways of preventing and curing cancer by harnessing the power of the immune system.

Successes in Cancer Immunotherapy in the Pillai Laboratory

Pillai_Dr  Shiv
Shiv Pillai, MD, PhD

In his laboratory at Mass General’s Charlestown Navy Yard, Dr. Pillai asks basic questions about the biology of the immune system and human genetics. By doing so, the Pillai Lab is bridging the gap between fundamental science and the rapidly moving field of cancer immunotherapy. Using advanced genetic tools, Dr. Pillai and his team explore how genes influence immune response and cell fate decisions. This research is allowing them to analyze the interactions between tumor cells and the body’s natural defense mechanisms.

The current revolution in cancer immunotherapy is based on the recent realization that tumor cells actively take hold of and turn off the immune system. Tumor cells have the ability to trick anti-tumor immune cells into destroying themselves. They can also stimulate the production of regulatory T cells – specialized immune cells that work to suppress the production of white blood cells – to weaken immune response to a specific area. The failure of a body’s immune system to recognize and attack these infectious agents allows tumor cells to multiply and invade neighboring tissues, leading to life-threatening infections and cancer.

The efforts of Dr. Pillai and his team are providing new hope for developing more effective, personalized, immune-system based treatments for cancer.

Dr. Pillai and his team have made significant progress in developing new strategies that allow the immune system to fight off tumor cells. Their discovery of the role of the enzyme Btk in the activation of B cells – special white blood cells that fight viruses, bacteria, and tumor cells – has contributed to the development of a new class of Btk inhibitor drugs. These inhibitors block certain proteins on a B cell, preventing a tumor cell from manipulating the immune system before it can harm healthy tissues. The new immunotherapy agents that have emerged from research in the Pillai Lab have the potential to block the wizardry of tumor cells, releasing the brakes they impose on the immune system.

Dr. Pillai and his team are hard at work expanding their research and deciphering the genetic events that underlie the development of cancer. One of the genetic pathways currently being studied in the Pillai lab suggests new approaches for the treatment of common forms of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They have also discovered new ways to strengthen immune responses and enhance helper T cell memory. The efforts of Dr. Pillai and his team are providing new hope for developing more effective, personalized, immune-system based treatments for cancer.

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