Friday morning, the A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute presented its $100,000 Taubman Prize for Excellence in Translation Medical Science to Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, at its seventh annual symposium in the Kahn Auditorium in the Biomedical Science Research Building.
About 200 people, mostly members of the medical community, attended the event that emphasized keynote speaker Dr. Carl June and his revolutionary work in leukemia treatment. However, there was also a focus on recent Taubman Scholars and the contributions that they are making with their own research projects.
The Alfred A. Taubman Medical Research Institute prides itself in supporting clinician-scientists with the resources to make advances in biomedical research that will translate to real world solutions to those suffering from life-threatening diseases. With such a goal in mind, the Institute’s tagline reads, “where scientists create cures.”
Part of the Institute’s success lies in its expanding influence. From its conception with four Taubman Scholars and no clinical trials, it has grown to encompass 31 Taubman Scholars and 51 clinical trials.
“I think that our biggest accomplishment is our growth and our outreach and really meeting our mission because we are scientists and we are creating cures,” said Neurology Prof. Eva Feldman, director of the Taubman Institute.
Carl June, a professor of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, introduced his promising research that will hopefully lead to a cure for leukemia. Dr. June’s work is particularly compelling to clinicians because it introduces an alternative to previous cancer treatments, chemotherapy and radiation, in the hopes that it will produce not only better survival rates, but also fewer side effects.
Oncology Prof. Max Wicha, deputy director of the institute, said June’s work is extremely innovative because he “has brought together these two areas of research, that is the area of gene therapy and the area of tumor immunotherapy, to actually genetically engineer the body’s immune cells to specifically fight cancer.”
After being introduced by both Wicha and Alfred Taubman, the founder and chair of the Taubman Institute, June delved into the specifics of the origins of his research, where the research currently stands today, and what he envisions for the future.
June’s treatment caters to patients by using their own T cells — a type of white blood cell is important for immunity — to personalize immunotherapy. His gene transfer therapy allows the cancerous body to overcome tolerance, or the activation of the immune system that ultimately prevents the body from destroying the tumor, through synthetic biology.
Through this synthetic biology, the body’s own immune cells can be fundamentally changed so that they are able to attack cancerous tumors.
After testing his new therapy with three adults, June moved toward helping children, affirming the importance in doing so by relaying that the number one cause of disease-related pediatric deaths is leukemia. Treatment options for these children are especially limited to those who may fail bone marrow transplants, which are already dangerous to begin with.
With his new therapy, June found a 90 percent response rate in his trial patients. The first patient that he treated, a young girl, has been cancer free for more than two years.
June also discussed the potential for his new therapy to go beyond leukemia to solid tumors. Clinical trials are being initiated to look into this possibility, although there are potential complications regarding cell toxicity.
While his results are very promising, Dr. June also recognized some of the problems that his new treatment will face. There will be regulatory and manufacturing challenges, in part due to the high cost of treatment, a function of the treatment specificity.
June reminded the audience that patients and doctors will need to be fully educated on the new treatment — patient issues as common as diarrhea, when treated traditionally, potentially become life threatening.
In his presentation, June expressed his excitement about the potential effect that this new therapy could have on children with leukemia.
“I loved taking care of patients, and I thought that I would do that the rest of my life,” June said. “Then I started having the opportunity to do some research, and it gradually became what I do 100 percent of the time.”
This experience seems to encapsulate the Institute’s motto, and Taubman himself summed up the importance of Friday’s event.
“I think that (biomedical research) is important to anyone who realizes that there’s so much sickness around, so much ill health, and if you’re in a position where you can bring people together, and you can get great minds together,” he said. “We can solve sickness and make people healthier. I think that there is a great opportunity.”