Frank McCormick, director of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, was among the experts to showcase recent progress and current research directions in the fight against cancer…
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Developing New StrategiesMcCormick emphasized the central role UCSF researchers play in cancer research. He noted the strong UCSF participation last month at the annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) -- the nation’s most prominent professional organization for researchers who aim to better understand cancers -- and the potential vulnerabilities of tumors that might be exploited in developing new treatment strategies. McCormick touched on clinical strategies that are being explored at UCSF, including combination treatment to overcome drug resistance; emerging therapies aimed at stimulating the immune system to attack tumors; and the use of small interfering RNA (siRNA) molecules as drugs to stop the activation of genes that tumors rely on. Wells noted that most drugs used to fight cancers inhibit proteins needed by tumors. However, Wells’ latest strategy is to try instead to activate a protein. The target for activation is called caspase 3. Caspase 3 triggers a biochemical chain reaction leading to cellular suicide. Normal cells usually activate this suicide program for the greater good when they become abnormal and cannot repair themselves. Tumor cells shut down this suicide program. Wells aims to turn it back on, and already he has had success treating cells on the lab bench.
Plenary speakers at the May 12 cancer symposium were, from left, James Wells, who heads the Small Molecule Discovery Center, UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann and Frank McCormick, director of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Making Progress on Blood DisordersPhysician-scientists who lead UCSF efforts to better understand cancers that arise in different types of cells found in blood -- leukemias, lymphomas and myelomas – described ongoing research during one of the breakout sessions. Kevin Shannon, MD, leader of the Hematologic Malignancies Program for the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, introduced the session by explaining how blood cancers differ from solid tumors. Blood tumors derive from stem cells, Shannon explained. These particular stem cells give rise to all cells of the blood system. The myeloid cells include platelets, red blood cells and neutrophils. Lymphoid cells include B and T lymphocytes. The stem cells also allow bone marrow recipients to regenerate the blood system. Different blood cancers may arise from stem cells that are at different stages of maturation, Shannon said. Specialized blood cells differ from many other tissues in that they normally live only a short time and continually must be replaced by new cells. Blood cancers tend to be widespread in the body by the time a patient is diagnosed. Therefore, surgery and radiation treatments are not normally treatment options. Instead, patients are given drugs that attack blood cancer cells throughout the body. While there is far to go to improve treatments for blood cancer patients, survival has greatly increased in recent decades, panelists noted. Ten years ago patients with myelomas survived about two years on average. Now average survival is about six years, according to the panelists. When Shannon began treating children with leukemia years ago, these young patients predictably relapsed despite treatment. Now the survival rate is about 85 percent, Shannon said. With steady advances in scientists’ understanding of these cancers and the new treatment strategies that follow from this new knowledge, Shannon said, “At the end of the day, these remission rates … turn into real cures.” Panelist Neil Shah, PhD, MD, co-leader of the Hematologic Malignancies Program for the Cancer Center, discovered a key mechanism that explains how CML can develop resistance to Gleevec. Shah is expanding his studies to explore the potential value of other small-molecule drugs in treating CML and other diseases, including acute myeloid leukemia and myeloproliferative disorders. Jeffrey Wolf, MD, director of Clinical Research and of the Myeloma Program for the Division of Hematology/Oncology within the Department of Medicine at UCSF, described how research is organized within UCSF's new Multiple Myeloma Translational Initiative.
Mark Laret, chief executive officer of UCSF Medical Center, gives an update on plans to build a new hospital complex at UCSF Mission Bay.