Bells Are Ringing! How Immunotherapy is Unlocking Doors to a Cancer Cure
By August 17, 2022 0 788•
The New Frontier: Immunotherapy
Your immune system is on a mission, constantly assessing threats, identifying invaders, and neutralizing or killing them off. It is a finely tuned network of organs, cells, proteins, and chemicals engaged in an existential battle. It asks the question: “is this me” or “is this not me?” And if it’s not “me,” what is it? Friend or foe?
Without the immune system, which has been honed and refined throughout the millennia of our existence as a species, we could not survive.
Samir N. Khleif, M.D., is also on a mission: to outsmart and disable cancer by overcoming its ability to evade or “tolerate” immunotherapeutic approaches.
Dr. Khleif, a practicing medical oncologist, a Biomedical Scholar, and professor, is the director of the Center for Immunology and Immunotherapy and the Loop Immuno-Oncology Research Laboratory at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital. He and his team of assistant professors, post docs, research assistants, graduate students, and trainees focus on understanding how the immune system works, delineating the mechanisms of immune response and resistance to immunotherapy and re-engineering the immune cells with the goal of developing novel immune therapeutics.
Khleif is a long-time pioneer in cancer immunotherapy. Before joining Georgetown, he served as Director of Georgia Cancer Center, Augusta University, where he oversaw the development of a large integrated program focused on immunology, inflammation, tolerance basic science, and immune therapy. He also led the Cancer Vaccine Section, a nationally active Immune Therapy Program at the National Institutes of Health-National Cancer Institute, where he was one of the early pioneers of cancer vaccines and led some of the clinical trials. (Fun fact: Moderna and BioNTech, the names behind the mRNA technology now used to protect us against COVID, started out as cancer vaccine companies.)
He currently holds numerous patents and has published several important studies unraveling the understanding of the interaction of immune cells and cancer and on the mechanisms of tumor-induced suppression and the strategies used to overcome them. His research team has also developed models to understand how different kinds of immune therapies can be combined to work synergistically and he translated these findings into clinical trials with the intention of more widespread use.
We recently met with him in his lab to learn more about immunology — a subject we’ve all come to know since the pandemic —and to discuss his research. For all his stellar achievements and fierce intellect, he was a gracious host and a passionate teacher. He is also, we later learned, a painter and a musician who plays keyboard, saxophone, piano, and the violin, “amateurly,” he insists. His top scientist of all time is Albert Einstein — and his favorite D.C. restaurant is Komi.
Commenting on the upcoming BellRinger Ride benefit for Lombardi, Khleif sees similarities between his life mission and bicycling: both activities have an “anticipation to reach the end goal — along with hard work and a sense of exploration or adventure.” To find out what BellRinger’s all about, see our sidebar in our print edition here.
Born in Syria to Palestinian refugee parents, Khleif attended college and medical school in Jordan after spending seven weeks in Vermont to learn English. Although he originally wanted to be a physicist, his father “swayed” him into medicine where a love of research led him to the study of virology, molecular biology, vaccines and, now, his work in harnessing the power of immune system to disable cancer cell growth and proliferation.
For Khleif, the joy of discovery is the catalyst for his work. “The more discoveries you find,” he says, “the more addicted you get. I tell my team: ‘when you discover something, ask yourself, why did nature create like this? Why does it exist? Can we recreate it when it’s missing? How can we use this as a tool for therapy?’ ”
Khleif and his team concentrate on four main areas of research: tumor immunology and immunotherapeutics (unraveling the mechanism through which the immune system and cancer cells interact ); T-cell plasticity (how T-cells, a type of immune cell, can be re-reengineered to amp up their immune response); immunotherapeutic resistance (how and why tumors learn to override the patient’s natural defenses and therefore become unresponsive to immuno- and other therapies); and combination immunotherapy design (identifying the best combination of immunotherapeutics to enhance the best clinical response).
Interestingly, the lab is also studying how some natural products, such as vitamin C and selenium, can be used to boost immunity, reprogram and repair immune cells, and reverse the damage that cancer causes on the immune system. So, stock up on your fruits, vegetables and seafood.
In his “other life” as an advocate for global health and impact-driven healthcare, he led the development and served as the founding CEO of the King Hussein Cancer Center in Amman, Jordan, the regional cancer center in the Middle East. He also led the planning and development of cancer care projects in low-income countries dedicated to bringing cancer education, research, and treatment to underserved areas around the world.
Every day, as your immune system conducts its intricate surveillance, it is working to dispatch dangers before they become serious health risks. Dangers like an errant cell that may grow into cancer. With immunotherapy in their arsenal, Khleif and his team are unlocking new strategies to dethrone the “emperor of all maladies” and save, he estimates, “millions of lives.”
To learn more about Dr. Khleif, his research, patents, and publications go to: https://gufaculty360.georgetown.edu/s/contact/00336000019h06bAAA/samir-khleif. You can also view his patient-oriented video on immunotherapy here: https://youtu.be/afdq8Op-jQM
For a highly accessible and entertaining resource on the immune system, check out Philipp Dettmer’s “Immune,” https://youtu.be/afdq8Op-jQM. If you or a family member have been diagnosed with cancer and would like to better understand immunotherapy, visit the Cancer Support Community here: https://www.cancersupportcommunity.org/immunotherapy-cancer-it-right-you .
And to support innovative cancer research at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, join the inaugural BellRinger Bike Ride on Oct. 22. Donate or learn more at bellringer.org.