MUSC taking part in cutting edge cancer research

CHARLESTON,SC (WCBD)–Cutting edge cancer research is taking place in labs across the nation including the Medical University of South Carolina.

It’s research that could lead to the greatest breakthroughs in cancer treatment.

The beakers and test tubes that line the shelves of Dr. Zihai Li’s lab at MUSC could contain the blueprints for this weapon. A weapon not man made, but within every person, the immune system. Li is the chair of the department of microbiology and immunology at Hollings Cancer Center.

“the system is already there,” says Li “we just need to make it stronger and act faster.”

It’s considered to be the 5th pillar in fighting cancer. Dr. Li believes it’s the most important.

“The so called immunotherapeutic strategy is really a means to activate the system so that the immune system can fight against cancer”

White blood cells known as killer T Cells are released to fight others that are infected or damaged. It was found that they could fight cancer nearly a half century ago, but scientists have been unable to activate them, until now.

“Now we can figure out how to release the break,” says Li, comparing the process to a car. “How to mobilize the Killer T Cells to the sight of the cancer to kill the cancer.”

It’s done by removing the cells, arming them, and putting them back in the body. It’s also done through vaccination, activating weak or failing immune system.

There are still many unanswered questions, but doctor Li says they are already seeing patients live longer. Their bodies are learning to fight back.

“What used to seem impossible,” he says, “now becomes manageable, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

One of these killer T cells called chimeric antigen receptors or CAR cells have been shown to effectively treat lymphoblastic leukemia and melanoma. It received unanimous recommendation for approval from the FDA. The FDA will make it’s decision in October.

The research conducted at the hospital isn’t left solely to doctors, but also to students. Two M.D. PhD students are making strides with their discoveries, finding ways to block side effects and engineer younger t-cells.

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