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Carl June and his research team had a breakthrough in T-cell immunotherapy after about two decades of working on the project.

Credit: Courtesy of Holly Auer

Carl June and his team recently had a breakthrough in T-cell immunotherapy after approximately two decades of related work.

Since 2011, nine out of a total of 12 patients have responded successfully to the treatment, for which June — the Director of the Translational Research Program and the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute at the Perelman School of Medicine — was awarded first place in Men’s Health Magazine’s “2012 Heroes of Health and Fitness.” The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with June about his new breakthrough.

DP: Can you tell me more about the treatment method?

CJ: It’s something that is best understood as a blood transfusion, but it’s your own blood.

The other part about it is that it’s a customized system because the cells have been made into something that they’re not naturally born to do. They’re able to do what I call in my lab “putting the cells on steroids.” You can make muscles stronger than they would be normally. People can run faster, swim faster and so on. What we’re doing basically is putting the immune system on steroids.

The normal immune system works great for most cases of flu and so, but it mostly fails in two bad things: HIV … and cancer. The immune system tries to fight the cancer … but usually it fails. Finding the reasons the immune system fails is what we’ve worked on and making it so that it doesn’t fail, so it can control the cancer and cure it, has been the holy grail objective of what we do.

DP: What is unique about this treatment?

CJ: This is unusual. I don’t think there’s a single precedent where a cancer therapy like this has gone from the laboratory setting to where patients can be treated and it looks like it works. That has never happened before unless it was done by a pharmaceutical company.

Basic inventions oftentimes happen in universities like Penn. Then what happens is they get developed into treatments at the pharmaceutical industry. This is the first time it has gone all the way in an academic center … This therapy is so different from what the pharmaceutical industry knew about so that’s why it didn’t happen there. They didn’t think it would work, so there’s only a bunch of diehard academics at a few cancer centers working on this and finally it broke through and it does work.

DP: How does it feel to be number one on Men’s Health magazine’s “2012 Heroes of Health and Fitness?”

CJ: I work in a medical science field, so one thing is whether or not the work is accepted within your field. One of the greatest things you can get is when people within your field recognize your work. When it happens with people outside of your field, it’s not something I ever expected. To get into a magazine like that or to get into The New York Times has been an amazing thing.

It has ups and downs to it. One of the good things is, for instance last weekend, our patient was at the [Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon] at Penn State University, where they raised $12 million dollars for cancer research and that happened in part because she was in The New York Times, and it’s been a great story.

There’s a lot of benefit that way. And it’s been carried outside of the more narrow medical research field that I work in and it’s now benefited a lot of people.…

The major downside of getting [recognition] right now [is that] a lot of patients’ hopes are raised which is a good thing but that bad part is that we can’t treat them all and there’s no place we can refer them to right now.

The other part is … our team is trying to do things that take a lot of concentration and we’ve had patients trying to make movies out of it and reporters coming in and that can be distracting.

I guess what I’m saying is there’s good and bad to this kind of recognition.

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