skip navigation nih record
Vol. LXV, No. 4
February 15, 2013
cover

previous story

next story


Making a ‘Star Wars Leap’
For MLK Program, Wood Conveys ‘Passion for Science of Treating Patients’

On the front page...

NCI’s Dr. Lauren Wood talks cancer vaccines.
NCI’s Dr. Lauren Wood talks cancer vaccines.
We already have some of the best cancer fighters inside us, and in the next 5 years or so, we’ll know how better to harness and deploy them. That’s the message NCI staff clinician Dr. Lauren Wood delivered Jan. 24 at this year’s annual salute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

An immunologist in NCI’s Vaccine Branch, Wood was tapped to give the keynote talk for “Remember! Celebrate! Act! A Day On, Not a Day Off,” NIH’s MLK observance, which was sponsored by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management in collaboration with the NIH Black Employment Program committee.

Continued...

“Dr. King recognized the power of service to strengthen communities and achieve common goals,” said NIH principal deputy director Dr. Lawrence Tabak, in welcoming remarks. “Through his words and example, Dr. King challenged individuals to take action and lift up their neighbors and communities through service. Dr. King’s birthday provides an opportunity for each of us to remember and honor the outstanding contributions that the civil rights leader has given to all of us, has given to the world. At NIH we can all be proud that the work we do here is a service to mankind.”

Work done at NIH—specifically intramural clinical science showing promise against cancer and HIV—was the focus of Wood’s lecture.

“I hope as a physician-scientist conducting clinical research in the Intramural Research Program that I’ll be able to communicate some of my passion for the science of what I do—treating patients who are resisting cancer and HIV infection—and what we’re trying to do to push the edge of the scientific envelope and come up with new treatment interventions that will make major differences in the lives of individuals,” Wood said.

She proceeded to offer what she later called “Immunology 101,” a short course on how the body reacts to invaders, both foreign and domestic. Her enthusiasm for the topic evident, she seasoned her lecture with humor and slides for the lay public.

Wood and NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman chat before her lecture at the 2013 King observance Wood receives a framed program poster from OEODM’s Margareth Bennett and FIC’s Dexter Collins. Wood, also a captain in the PHS, greets fellow Commissioned Corps member retired RADM Richard Wyatt, deputy director of NIH’s Office of Intramural Research.
Wood and NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman chat before her lecture at the 2013 King observance



Wood receives a framed program poster from OEODM’s Margareth Bennett and FIC’s Dexter Collins.





Wood, also a captain in the PHS, greets fellow Commissioned Corps member retired RADM Richard Wyatt, deputy director of NIH’s Office of IntramuralResearch.

Photos: Bill Branson

Showing several images of computer network rooms with colorful cords coiled—and sometimes tangled—throughout, Wood said every time she passes by an open IT closet, she is reminded of the human immune system.

“That is really what our immune system is like in a nutshell,” she said. “This snapshot with all of these complex interactions…In the end, even though we know all about these detailed components of the organs, detailed components about the cells and detailed components about how the cells talk to each other using different messengers, it’s still a black box.”

Wood said the main problem in disorders of the immune system is that there is either too little immunity—defenses are outnumbered or disabled in some way—or too much immunity—defenses begin attacking the wrong targets, namely the body itself.

One of the biggest challenges in her research, she noted, is finding ways to make the immune system identify cancer as a harmful intruder. Our immune system often sees cancer cells as “self” and not an “enemy.” That makes employing the immune system to attack the cancer all the more challenging.

The Vaccine Branch develops vaccines and therapies that “harness the immune response to control, eradicate or prevent cancer and HIV infection.” Basically, Wood’s research aims to galvanize and strengthen the body’s own defenses to recognize and stop harmful tumors from developing and growing.

Why cancer vaccines? “Because,” she said, “we know inherently that the immune system is capable of controlling and eliminating cancer…In the next 5 years, the greatest advances in cancer treatment are going to be in the field of cancer immunotherapy and immunotherapeutic vaccines. That’s really going to take us a Star Wars leap into the future.”

Following the lecture, Wood answers questions and talks with audience members.
Following the lecture, Wood answers questions and talks with audience members.

Wood and colleagues conduct “first-in-human” trials in an effort to determine first whether the therapy is safe, then whether the treatment stimulates an immune response and finally whether that immune response fights the cancer or HIV.

She contrasted vaccine therapies with traditional chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy, she explained, is like dropping a bomb: “There’s massive destruction,” she said. “There’s also some civilian casualties,” that is, damage to normal tissue. The effects of immune-based therapies, on the other hand, are indirect and often delayed. First they must stimulate an immune response and in turn, that immune response must have an anti-tumor effect. Cancer vaccines, she noted, are less damaging to healthy cells, cause fewer side effects and are generally well tolerated.

A novel and potentially promising immunotherapy is the TARP peptide cancer vaccine. Wood’s group is currently investigating the treatment in prostate cancer patients with PSA biochemical recurrence. TARP (TCRγ-alternative reading frame protein)—discovered by NCI veteran investigator Dr. Ira Pastan—is found in more than 90 percent of prostate cancers and about 50 percent of breast cancers.

So far in early studies, the TARP vaccine has passed the three main tests for an active immunotherapy: it’s safe, it sparked the immune system to respond in the majority of patients and vaccination appears to be slowing tumor growth rates by about 50 percent.

“These results have been very encouraging, leading us to plan a new study that will examine a second generation TARP vaccine with more peptides that covers the whole TARP protein, probably in the late summer,” she said.

Reminding the audience that MLK Day is a time to serve others, Wood ended with two parting thoughts: “One of the ways I think people can honor Martin Luther King is to consider becoming a registered bone marrow donor,” she said, citing the need for more diversity in the donor population.

Finally, she encouraged participation in clinical trials for those resisting cancer. “It’s really through clinical research that we are able to move the therapeutic interventions forward and ensure that these advances are available to everyone,” she concluded.

The entire MLK observance is archived for NIH’ers online at http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=12439&bhcp=1.


back to top of page