‘First Look’ Series Showcases the Future of Cancer Care

Two dozen emerging leaders spoke at the 2016 World Medical Innovation Forum in April. The series, “First Look,” gave attendees a glimpse of innovative cancer research activities underway at BWH, MGH and DFCI. Each 10-minute power session highlighted compelling cancer research that is currently poised for commercialization. Taken together, the talks provided a vision of the future of cancer care.
“Engaging our early stage investigators was an exciting way to kick of the World Forum,” said Ann Klibanski, MD, Partners HealthCare Chief Academic Officer and the Laurie Carrol Guthart Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. “It also created dozens of new ties among our Harvard faculty, industry and investors.”
One session revealed new tools for understanding the tactics at play when healthy cells turn cancerous. Healthy cells rely on a symphony of highly coordinated proteins, but this melodious symphony becomes cacophonic in cancer cells. A team of investigators led by Wilhelm Haas, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at the MGH, created a fast and easy method for mapping the symphony of interactions between proteins in a cell. Researchers can use this tool to compare protein interactions in healthy versus cancerous cells, revealing key differences that can be targeted with new cancer therapeutics. The tool can also reveal the complex changes that occur when a patient becomes resistant to treatment.
Shiladitya Sengupta, PhD, and BWH colleagues presented a session on disarming cancer cells with molecular combinations of cancerfighting compounds that fit together like Lego blocks. This allows researchers to use multiple drugs, or powerful drug-adjuvant pairs, to home in on and destroy tumor cells while leaving healthy cells intact. Sengupta, an associate bioengineer at BWH, developed a computer algorithm that simulates the interactions between molecules and allows researchers to screen combinational therapies at a massive scale.
Another high energy session focused on a part of the genome that was once considered a junkyard of useless information because it doesn’t encode genes. But this noncoding region is now recognized as playing a vital role in activating genes at the right time and place in the cell. A team led by David Ting, MD, mined these stretches of the genome and identified a certain sequence that repeats itself. When expressed, this sequence — known as HSATII — speeds up tumor growth in a variety of cancers, including pancreatic, prostate, lung, ovarian, and renal cell carcinomas. Ting, an assistant physician in hematology and oncology at the MGH, is searching for the enzymes responsible for expressing HSATII in tumor cells. Once these enzymes are identified, researchers can find ways to silence them and stem the spread of cancer cells.
“There is an unrivaled amount of genetic and proteomic research coming out of the labs of our early career Harvard investigators that that offer important new clinical approaches. This event was an opportunity to get many of our key investigators out of the lab and in front of critical decision makers,” says Pat Fortune, PhD, Innovation Market Sector Leader at Partners HealthCare. “It has significantly accelerated a number of our on-going projects.”
Other sessions focused on innovative approaches to diagnosing cancer. Hakho Lee, PhD, presented a handheld imaging device that hooks up with a smartphone camera; the two-part tool allows clinicians in developing countries and rural areas to quickly and inexpensively screen biological samples for cancer. Lee, director of the biomedical engineering program in the MGH Center for Systems Biology, developed microbeads that home in on cancer-specific molecules in a tissue sample, causing tell-tale changes in the image. Lee’s group also unveiled new sensors that can detect cancer cells based on their secretion of small fluid-filled sacs called exosomes. These sensors promise to revolutionize how cancer is diagnosed and monitored in remote areas of the world.
Finally, a team led by Mark Cobbold, MD, PhD, is harnessing the power of the immune system to combat cancer. Cobbold, an associate professor of medicine at the MGH, studies how the healthy immune response recognizes and fights cancerous cells. His lab has identified more than 1,000 cancer-specific proteins that are detected by the human immune system. This master list is helping researchers craft so-called immunotherapies, which use the body’s own defenses to stave off cancer.