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Vaccine Helps Kwak Hit Prime TIME

Annual Report - Winter 2011

(From left) Larry Kwak, M.D., Ph.D.; Ruth Katz, M.D.; Alan McClelland, Ph.D.
Photos: Wyatt McSpadden

Breakthrough targets follicular lymphoma

By Lori Baker

Each year, the minds at TIME magazine select 100 people they believe most affect our world. Making the 2010 list — alongside people like Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey — was MD Anderson scientist Larry Kwak, M.D., Ph.D.

Professor and chair of the Department of Lymphoma and Myeloma, he is a leader in the field of therapeutic cancer vaccines, which are given as a treatment rather than for prevention. The honor by TIME was for his breakthrough vaccine for those with a form of cancer called follicular lymphoma.

“While standard chemotherapy doesn’t cure patients with lymphoma, we can usually get them into remission. Unfortunately, if you don’t give some treatment, almost 100% of patients have the disease come back,” he says.

Vaccine shows promise

Kwak’s approach shows exciting promise. Patients who received a personalized vaccine remained in remission an average of 47% longer than those who received chemotherapy alone. Some patients from earlier clinical trials have stayed in remission for 15 years after their vaccination.

“For many, this has been a dream: to have a treatment that works without causing many side effects,” Kwak says. “I think we finally have our foot in the door, and that opens up a whole host of opportunities for further optimizing the therapy and bringing it to reality for patients.”

Katz's lung cancer discovery could pay off

By Sandi Stromberg

As she stood in a dark room looking at cells through a microscope, Ruth Katz, M.D., had a eureka moment.

She realized she was looking at the same abnormalities in the sputum of an end-stage lung cancer patient that she had seen in his tumor. “I turned to a colleague and said, ‘I bet these have to be in the blood, too.’”

Based on this hypothesis, Katz, professor in the Department of Pathology, received her first grant from the National Cancer Institute in 1999 — $1.2 million.

A month later, her husband was diagnosed with lung cancer. “We were in Yosemite, and he was short of breath,” she says. “He wasn’t a smoker, and he died 18 months later.”

FISH helps with detection

That increased her commitment to investigate lung cancer using a technique called fluorescence in situ hybridization, or FISH, to detect abnormal circulating cells that have the same abnormalities found in non-small cell lung cancer.

What she discovered could be an important breakthrough for a disease that continues to defy early detection. “Blood tests for these circulating tumor cells could be used to diagnose lung cancer earlier, monitor response to therapy and detect residual disease in patients after treatment,” she says.

Work is under way to develop a clinical trial based on her findings.

Reported in July 2010 in the journal Clinical Cancer Research.

Supporting research at core of McClelland's 'dream job'

By David Berkowitz

Alan McClelland, Ph.D., didn’t set out to become a globetrotter. His travels from Scotland to Texas — by way of England, Connecticut, California and Hawaii — were a matter of opportunity.

“I’ve always gone where the opportunities are … where I can contribute,” he says.

After more than 20 years in drug discovery research and development for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, he joined the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii as associate director of scientific administration. Then, in 2009, McClelland accepted his greatest challenge — directing and managing all aspects of MD Anderson’s Cancer Center Support Grant.

Current core grant totals $52.5 million

Also known as the core grant, the five-year award for $52.5 million from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) provides partial funding support for 24 shared resources (cores) and 22 research programs throughout the institution.

The competitive peer-reviewed award also confers NCI designation on 
MD Anderson as a comprehensive cancer center. The institution is now in its 35th year of core grant funding, with the next renewal due in 2012.

As associate vice president for programs, infrastructure and planning in the Office of Translational Research, McClelland is counting on his staff and the leadership of Robert Bast Jr., M.D., vice president for translational research, to help assemble 3,000 pages of text and prepare for a site visit as part of the renewal process.

“Working in this role at MD Anderson is a dream job for me,” McClelland says.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center