Our Research

Cancer Immunology

Cancer Immunology Research

In addition to protecting us against pathogens from outside, the immune system recognizes and destroys abnormal cells that come from our own bodies, like cancer cells. Most cases of what we think of as cancer are diagnosed at the point when the cancerous cells have already slipped past the immune system and are growing out of control. Cancers subvert normal immune responses by redeploying immune cells or molecules to cloak the presence of the tumor and dysregulate normal tumor-directed immunity. 

Currently, we are studying the blood cancer multiple myeloma and the skin cancer melanoma

Multiple Myeloma 

Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells inside the bone marrow, which generates all our blood and immune cells. Multiple myeloma afflicts approximately 35,000 people in the U.S. each year, killing nearly 13,000, according to the American Cancer Society. The average age at diagnosis is in the late 60’s. In some patients, the tumor begins slowly and may smolder at a low level for some years before it progresses. Treatments for multiple myeloma have improved survival but the relapse (or recurrence) rate for the tumor is high, and 5-year survival is only around 50%. 

The immune system plays a major role in preventing the development of cancers by detecting abnormal cells and destroying them before they can divide substantially and create tumors. Many cancers have developed sneaky approaches to avoid or deflect detection by the immune system. It is not yet clear how multiple myeloma, which is itself a cancer of immune cells, impacts the numbers and function of various immune cell types or how the disease may exist at low levels in the body for years without being effectively recognized and destroyed by the immune system.  

We are partnering with researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to better understand how the immune system becomes dysregulated in the setting of multiple myeloma and during the course of treatment. We will explore whether autologous stem cell transplants can reset the immune system in the setting of multiple myeloma and will strive to understand the mechanisms by which the tumor may sabotage immune surveillance, ultimately using this knowledge to identify new treatment targets or approaches.    

Melanoma research

Melanoma is a cancer of the melanin (pigment) producing cells in the skin. Approximately 105,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with melanoma every year, according to the American Cancer Society. Melanoma accounts for about 1% of all skin cancer cases in the U.S. but causes the majority of skin cancer deaths, around 8,000 per year.  

The introduction of a new class of drugs called “checkpoint inhibitors,” a type of cancer immunotherapy, into melanoma treatment regimens has had a significant impact on outcomes. Checkpoint inhibitors are drugs that turn down natural regulatory mechanisms of the immune system, essentially removing the brakes from T cells and unleashing them to attack the tumor more aggressively. Despite this aggressive approach, melanoma tumors in some patients still cannot be effectively controlled. Additionally, patients taking checkpoint inhibitors are at an increased risk for developing autoimmune diseases, since the treatment affects all T cells, not just those that attack cancer cells.  

We are working with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania to better understand the effect of checkpoint inhibitors on the function of immune cells and to understand how use of these drugs may lead to immune dysregulation and autoimmunity. 

Meet our Melanoma research partner