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NYC Hospitals Where Immunotherapy was Born, Are Pushing it to Become Standard of Care

I meet Dr. Arnab Ghosh (GO-SHH) outside of the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Research Center.

“And we have a number of buildings intermixed from Cornell and Memorial Sloan Kettering,” said Arnab Ghosh.

Ghosh is a research fellow for Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Marcel van den Brink lab, and he still marvels at its medical significance.

“In many ways one of the cradles of immunotherapies as we know it,” he says.

We head up to the 17th floor, and immediately begin hearing a low hum.

“These are tanks of nitrogen?”

“Tanks of liquid nitrogen, where we keep all the cells,” says Ghosh.

Here, Ghosh and his team are using patient biopsies to find out why some respond to immunotherapy and others don’t. Over a century ago, William Coley, a surgeon at Sloan Kettering, was doing the same.

Now known as the father of immunotherapy, Coley used a controversial treatment — bacterial toxins to treat his bone cancer patients. And with some success. Today, the science has rapidly advanced.

“You can take out the immune cells, you can genetically engineer them to change their characteristics so that they can identify cancer cells well,” says Ghosh.

Cancer cells invade the immune system, secreting a protein that works like a mask. Scientists can arm a patient’s white blood cells with certain types of proteins that allow them to recognize those cancer cells and kill them.

Immunotherapy is not a standard of care for every cancer yet. However, Sloan Kettering is trying to expand. Dr. Dmitriy Zamarin, a medical oncologist, said this hospital is pushing the boundaries. Because its patient population is so diverse, patients from all over the world with all kinds of cancers, the hospital can mount more extensive clinical trials.

“It’s a great diversity in New York City that you don’t see anywhere else,” says Dr. Zamarin. And, he says, there is extensive cooperation between medical institutions in the city.

“Like for example, we have a strong collaboration that ongoing with multiple researchers from NYU and from Mount Sinai,” he says.

But what is really slowing immunotherapy from becoming standard of care isn’t lack of funds for research, but patient knowledge about this treatment, says Dr. Zamarin…

“I always encourage patients to start exploring trial options early on because there may be some trails in immunotherapy can be applied very early, and not only prolong the patients survival, as many of these do right now, but maybe even result in some cures,” says Zamarin.

Katherine (“K.C.”) Dill, a stage IV lung cancer survivor, on the day she was declared “no evidence of disease.” Photo courtesy of K.C. Dill.

When Katerine Dill heard of immunotherapy, she just couldn’t believe it.

“When it was described to me it sounded like science fiction,” Dill says.

Dill is a stage IV lung cancer survivor, who, after rounds of chemo and radiation, was not seeing results at her small, hometown cancer clinic in Conroe, Texas. So she started looking in New York.

The surgeon Dill found at Mount Sinai was Dr. Raja Flores, who confirmed her cancer was, indeed, inoperable. But suggested she try immunotherapy. That’s when a flier for Baylor College of Medicine came in the mail.

“And then we began our journey with immunotherapy, which was a lot easier gig than the chemo and radiation,” says Dill.

After eight infusions of immunotherapy, Dill was considered in remission. After 16, she qualified for the definition of no evidence of disease.

“I thought, ‘What do I have to lose?’ They say I am not going to make it anyway, so I am going to try. And thank God, I did because I am still here,” says Dill.

Now immunotherapy has been FDA approved for nearly a dozen cancers. Researchers and doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering are trying to expand it to much, much more.

Meira Gebel, Columbia Radio News.


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