January 2017 — Preventive Cancer Vaccines Harness the Immune System to Defend Against Cancer Development
While it is commonly known that vaccines can be used to prevent infectious diseases, researchers have also been exploring the use of vaccines for cancer prevention. Olivera Finn, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Immunology and Surgery, has dedicated her career to the study of the human immune system and how it can be harnessed to combat cancer.
While some cancer vaccines focus on attacking cancer cells that have already formed, preventive cancer vaccines aim to destroy pre-malignant cells before they turn into cancer. Dr. Finn and colleagues completed the first ever clinical trial testing a vaccine based on a human tumor antigen, MUC1, in people at high risk for developing colon cancer. The positive results of that study led to a second, larger trial that is currently ongoing.
This past year, Dr. Finn was the recipient of an Outstanding Investigator Award from the National Cancer Institute, providing $6.2 million over seven years to support her research in the immunoprevention and immunosurveillance of human non-viral cancers. She also recently received the American Association of Immunologists Lifetime Achievement Award.
Watch Dr. Finn discuss preventive cancer vaccines in the video below.
December 2016 — UPCI Study Underlines the Importance of Routine Skin Cancer Screening
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer worldwide. The most deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma, kills about 10,000 Americans per year. Routine screening enables earlier detection of skin lesions, when they are thinner and localized and can be removed by a simple surgical procedure. A large screening study performed at UPCI provided evidence that the benefits of routine screening by primary care physicians outweigh the risks, which may inform future screening guidelines and recommendations.
November 2016 — Key Mechanisms of Cancer, Aging and Inflammation Uncovered
A team of researchers led by Patricia Opresko, PhD, Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Pitt, and member of the UPCI Molecular and Cellular Cancer Biology Program and Carnegie Mellon University Center for Nucleic Acids Science and Technology, has uncovered new details about the biology of telomeres. These DNA “caps” protect the tips of chromosomes and play key roles in a number of health conditions, including cancer, inflammation and aging. Telomeres are shortened every time a cell divides and therefore become smaller as a person ages. When they become too short, telomeres send a signal to the cell to stop dividing permanently, which impairs the ability of tissues to regenerate and contributes to many aging-related diseases. In contrast, in most cancer cells, levels of the enzyme telomerase, which lengthens telomeres, are elevated, allowing them to divide indefinitely.
A number of studies have shown that oxidative stress—a condition where damaging molecules known as free radicals build up inside cell—accelerates telomere shortening. Free radicals can damage not only the DNA that make up telomeres, but also the DNA building blocks used to extend them. New findings by the research team suggest that the mechanism by which oxidative stress accelerates telomere shortening is by damaging the DNA precursor molecules, not the telomere itself. Mediation of these biological activities may provide new approaches for treating cancer.
Watch Dr. Opresko further discuss their findings in the video below, and read the press release here to learn more.