Imagine the sudden emergence of a new, previously unseen viral disease that is rapidly approaching epidemic levels.
Researchers tirelessly study infected patients to understand the disease, searching for any potential Achilles heel that could be exploited to develop new treatment approaches.
They emerge from the lab with a shocking discovery. Our best hope for eradicating the disease lies not in targeting the virus itself, but the patient’s own immune system!
What is this emerging viral illness – Ebola? Marburg? Lassa fever?
None of the above. The disease is human papillomavirus (HPV)-related head and neck cancer (HPV-HNC).
According to the Journal of Clinical Oncology, HPV-HNC is predicted to overtake that of cervical cancer and all other HPV-related cancers in the U.S. by the year 2020.
While these cancers respond to conventional therapy with surgery or chemoradiotherapy, side effects of these treatments can cause some patients lifelong difficulty with speech and swallowing.
So what is the Achilles heel of HPV-related cancers that we hope will lead to new and less toxic treatment approaches?
Your immune system is educated from birth to recognize the difference between your own proteins, bacteria, and viruses, and “foreign” invaders that do not belong in your body.
The foreign viral proteins of HPV living inside cancer cells should trigger a massive immune response, which destroys both virus and tumor – except that virus-infected cancer cells know how to shut down the immune system and grow undetected.
We believe that learning how to turn the immune system back on will unleash this immune response against HPV, thus allowing the patient to cure him or herself.
Our research group is working to achieve this goal by:
- Identifying the variations in immune function that make some people susceptible to HPV-related cancer in the first place.
- Understanding how to make existing therapies even better.
- Conducting clinical trials and developing the next generation of highly-active cancer immunotherapies against HPV-HNC.
Learn more about the research happening in my lab.
-By Dr. Andrew Sikora, Associate Professor of Otolaryngology and co-director of the Baylor College of Medicine Head and Neck Cancer Program and a member of the NCI-designated Dan L. Duncan Cancer Center.