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Exploradio Origins sparks ideas and conversation with its unique and engaging 90 second nutshell approach. Each episode highlights the work of one of the more than 200 fellows at the Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University.

Exploradio Origins: The Birth of Cancer Immunotherapy

An oral squamous cancer cell (white) being attacked by two cytotoxic T cells (red), part of a natural immune response.

Each time our cells grow and divide, they have to perfectly copy out almost a billion elements of genetic code. Of course, perfect almost never happens. So as soon as there was a genetic code, life had to evolve a way to fix DNA mismatches. But sometimes people inherit mutations in those DNA mismatch repair genes, and then you have really challenging cancers. But, at the bottom of this, there lies some hope in our own immune systems.  

Stan Gerson

“Very recently, we realized that those cancers have a ton of mutations in them,” said Stan Gerson, distinguished professor and the Director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center at Case Western Reserve University. “You don’t see it in the normal tissue, you only see it in the rapidly growing cells.”

Gerson discovered that the broken mismatch repair system making the cancer cells with a ton of mutations in them is actually the key to training our immune system to recognizing and killing the cancer.

“Our newest chemotherapies are immune treatments that recognize abnormal cells based on abnormal proteins which result from the abnormal mutations that occurred because of the mismatch repair loss. Over 90 percent of patients with this horrible mutation that they inherit and develop cancer can be cured, which is absolutely remarkable.”

Kellen McGee is currently pursuing a PhD in nuclear and accelerator physics at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2014. She’s held a number of research positions, ultimately becoming a research assistant in a biophysics and structural biology lab at Case Western Reserve University. There, the Institute for the Science of Origins instantly became her intellectual home. Central to the ISO’s mission is science communication.