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Everyone knows that dramatic events are unfolding in the world of science.  The human genome has been deciphered, nanotechnology is here, and questions about the integration of life across the planet are being answered.  Never before have such powerful scientific tools been available.  The challenge now is to creatively apply these amazing opportunities with one overriding goal – to cure cancer.  Dr. David Krag’s laboratory is dedicated to applying the most sophisticated and promising research tools in relentless pursuit of this goal.

A Brief History

Methods developed by Dr. Krag are now being used to help treat cancer patients around the world.  In 1993 he developed the radio-tracer technique for sentinel node surgery.  This allows the surgeon to very accurately remove the one or two lymph nodes most likely to receive cancer cells.  This technique allows the surgeon to more accurately identify cancer-containing lymph nodes early enough for the surgery to be most successful.  It also spares the majority of patients more extensive surgery, speeding recovery time.  Today, as a direct result of Dr. Krag’s work, the majority of breast cancer patients in the United States are treated with this technique and it has become the preferred method for treating breast cancer patients world-wide.

Dr. Krag is also leading the world’s largest-ever surgical trial in breast cancer.  This has involved treatment centers and surgeons across North America, with more than 5,600 women with breast cancer participating.  It is through this scientific leadership that changes are made to improve the care of cancer patients.

In 1998 Dr. Krag also invented and developed a wireless implantable beacon the size of a grain of rice.  This small safe beacon marks the location of a cancer and provides its precise position to doctors.  How is this important?  One example among many is in the treatment of prostate cancer.  This cancer is often treated with radiation therapy, which can be difficult to aim precisely at the correct area.  Dr. Krag’s implantable beacon helps the radiation therapist pinpoint exactly where to aim the beam and allows the treatment to move in tandem with the human body and stay on target.  This treatment has now been used for thousands of men with prostate cancer and is being used in over half of the states in the United States.  Today, men with prostate cancer are directly benefitting from Dr. Krag’s method to make their radiation treatment more accurate and effective with fewer side effects.

What’s Going on Now?

Dr. Krag’s lab is located at the University of Vermont, College of Medicine.  Here Dr. Krag has attracted an outstanding team of seasoned and dedicated researchers focused on developing cures for cancer using the body’s own immune system.

When a cancer begins to form, the immune system can sense that the new growth is abnormal, activating the body’s natural defenses.  Special cells in the body called B cells are part of this immune response.  The B cells make antibodies that are released into the blood stream and attach to the cancer.  When antibodies bind to their target, they signal the rest of the immune system to come over and attack whatever the antibodies have attached to.

The problem with self-made antibodies to cancer is that the cancer is just “normal” enough for the immune system to back off, suppressing the part of the immune system that would otherwise kill the cancer.  This is a safety mechanism that prevents the immune system from going wild and attacking normal, healthy cells.

Dr. Krag’s team has developed a technique that takes advantage of the individual cancer patient’s immune system and gets around this roadblock.  By obtaining the B cells that make antibodies from a blood sample, experiments can then be done safely outside the patient in test tubes in the lab.  Through these tests we are able to find specific antibodies that bind to the cancer.  Once this antibody is found, the lab begins an intensive process to turn it into a true, personalized, anticancer drug.

Our goal is to develop methods to rapidly boost a patient’s immune response to their own cancer. This will result in much greater levels of antibodies that are produced by a patient’s own immune system and effectively eliminate the cancer cells. We hope to begin this treatment method very soon in patients with cancer.

Why do You Need My Help?

Your donated dollars have an enormous impact on this ground-breaking research program.  Dr. Krag has first-hand experience with this impact.  His radio tracer technique for sentinel node surgery, which is now a widely-used technique for detecting cancer cells in the sentinel nodes allowing for much less invasive surgery, was kick-started by donated dollars.  Once the initial research showed promising results, Dr. Krag was able to then gain most of his funding for all three development phases from the National Cancer Institute.  Without private support for the earliest phases of research, this and many other ideas like it may never have left the drawing board.  Dr. Krag and his team remain grateful to donors for making developments like this possible.

We are very pleased that as of July, 2013 after a long series of lab-based experiments, this antibody research is now ready for evaluation in patients.  The first tests will help us perfect the technique of selecting anti-cancer antibodies in individual patients before we move on to using these antibodies as treatment.

The first patients will have a vaccine (inactive cells) made from their own tumor injected into the skin.  We will then use a harmless radioactive tracer to locate the vaccine-draining lymph node which we will remove through a small biopsy.  Then we will test all of the hundreds to thousands of different antibodies present in the lymph node to locate those that specifically attack the cancer cells .

It is very important to first determine the number and quality of antibodies produced by the body in response to the cancer vaccine  The next step will be to produce sufficient quantities of the selected anti-cancer antibodies for auto tranfusion back to the same patient.  Anyone who has seen a loved one go through chemotherapy or experienced it themselves will appreciate the enormity of what this could mean.  Instead of killing any rapidly-dividing cell as chemotherapy does, using the body’s own anti-cancer antibodies would affect only the cancer cells.  And because the treatment will involve antibodies originating in the patient’s own body, the body’s response to it should be smooth and easy.

We are so grateful to the many donors who have made it possible for us to get to this point.  We particularly need funds over the next 6 to 9 months to accomplish this first set of experiments with patients. The faster we can move through this phase, the quicker we can move to treating patients! We thank all of you who are sending funds (and good will!) our way through the S.D. Ireland Cancer Research Fund.

From the lab,

David Krag, MD and team