Finding better ways to fight cancer means starting with the basics

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Dana-Farber researchers focus on immunology and virology for future cancer treatments

Having a team of scientists working on basic science at a cancer institute may seem unusual, but Kai W. Wucherpfennig, MD, PhD, co-chair of the Department of Cancer Immunology and Virology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, says it makes perfect sense.

“All of what we do at Dana-Farber is driven by science,” said Wucherpfennig. “Basic science creates new concepts that we then take into the clinic. Our founder, Sidney Farber, MD, had the vision to fully integrate discovery in the lab into patient care at the Institute. Basic research provides the building blocks upon which future cancer treatments are built.”

The department is changing its name to help move that vision forward. On July 1, 2015, the Department of Cancer Immunology and AIDS at Dana-Farber became the Department of Cancer Immunology and Virology.

“We found we were not only studying AIDS, but also studying how viruses can be used to modify immune cells for the treatment of cancer,” said Carl Novina, MD, PhD, a lead researcher in the Department of Cancer Immunology and Virology at Dana-Farber. “Viruses themselves are interesting areas of study. Some viruses promote cancer, so it’s important to understand the biology of viruses and viruses can be developed as tools to treat cancers.”

According to Novina, virology and cancer immunology go hand-in-hand in the war against cancer.

“Cancer immunology is one of the most exciting frontiers now in cancer research. Recent clinical trials by scientists at Dana-Farber and around the world have shown that immunotherapies can produce durable responses in advanced cancers, such as melanomas,” said Novina.

Other innovative projects researchers in the Department of Cancer Immunology and Virology are developing are novel targets for cancer immunotherapy, therapeutic antibodies for clinical trials, and “epigenetic reprogramming,” which may be the next frontier in gene therapy.

“We are a basic science department, and what basic science does is create new ideas for how we can treat cancer in the future,” said Wucherpfennig. “Without basic science, you would run out of ideas for what to do in the future, and we know there’s still a lot of work to be done to improve the treatment of cancer patients.”

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