Despite all of the groundbreaking work Eric Kmiec, Ph.D., is doing at Christiana Care’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute, he has a simple wish he hopes will be granted before the calendar changes to 2018.
“I want to be the least important person in the room by the end of the year,” says Kmiec, who heads the Center’s Gene Editing Institute.
It isn’t false modesty. Kmiec is performing experiments aimed at helping physicians target the genes that cause tumors to resist treatments, and the results have been quite encouraging. If everything proceeds according to Kmiec’s plan, by year’s end, his work in gene therapy will allow doctors to begin clinical trials on patients. At that point, Kmiec will be out of the equation, and to his preference, anonymous.
Researchers don’t normally seek the spotlight, so Kmiec’s wish isn’t that unusual. But even if no one recognizes him, his accomplishments are absolutely worthy of praise.
“Delaware is the First State, and Dr. Kmiec started gene editing in the state last year, when only one other hospital in the country was doing it,” says Nick Petrelli, M.D., director of the Cancer Center.
Because tumors are extremely adept at evading treatments designed to eradicate them, Kmiec’s research is targeting genes in the hope of teaching them to attack the foreign entity and make it more susceptible to chemotherapy. For now, Kmiec is addressing two specific cancers: lung and melanoma, due to Delaware’s popular beach communities. Working side-by-side with clinicians, Kmiec and his team are creating genetic tools capable of altering the genome of a cancer cell to create personalized treatments.
“We learned over the years that from a genetic standpoint, tumors are heterogeneous and are changing constantly,” Kmiec says. “If we can alter the genome of a cancer cell, we can push back on it and re-educate the body to attack the foreign body.”
In experiments to treat melanoma, Kmiec’s team has identified ways tumors disguise themselves from the body’s defense systems and is beginning to unmask them so they will be more susceptible to treatment. By lessening a tumor’s resistance, it is possible to limit the amount of arduous chemotherapy treatments a patient must endure.
Petrelli reports that clinical trials in animals have been extremely successful, and he expects therapies to attack melanoma will be available by the fall, with lung cancer gene treatments not too far behind. When that happens, Kmiec will step aside to let the physicians do their work.
And move on to the next challenge.