Brent Hanks, MD, PhD: Feeling optimistic

Year Funded: 2015

BRENT HANKS: I Feel Optimistic

Melanoma has been steadily increasing in recent years, and despite improvements in diagnosis and early stage treatment, metastatic cancer patients face staggering low chances for recovery. At Duke University School of Medicine (Durham, N.C.), tumor immunologist Brent Hanks, MD, PhD, is challenging this frightening statistic with an innovative new delivery system for dendritic cells (DCs).

Dendritic cells (DCs) are an important part of a person’s natural immune system, and without their ability to trigger immune responses, immunotherapy doesn’t work. All too often, this is the case. Tumors hijack DCs and stop them from working. With funding from the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy (ACGT), Dr. Hanks and his team are exploring innovative ways to genetically engineer these cells to resist cancer’s attempts to stop them. Their novel approach to this difficult challenge builds on recent achievements published in a report entitled “Paracrine Wnt5a-β-Catenin Signaling Triggers a Metabolic Program that Drives Dendritic Cell Tolerization.”

“We’re advancing what we learned about metabolic pathways [in that previous study] toward an applied system for clinical translation to treat melanoma and other unresponsive solid tumors,” says Dr. Hanks. “By leveraging exosomes produced by tumors and the RNA they carry, we intend to develop a new, more sustainable delivery system to efficiently reverse the effects of tumors on DCs.”

Dr. Hanks has always been motivated by the complex challenges of cancer. “These are horrible diseases,” says Dr. Hanks. “They have a devastating impact on patients and their families. But given the science and technology that’s understood and available these days, which was nonexistent just 10 years ago, there’s a lot of reason to be hopeful about future outcomes for cancer patients. There are still barriers to be overcome, but significant steps forward have already been realized in gene therapy and immunology, and many more untapped ideas and promising opportunities await exploration. I feel optimistic.”

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