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Dr. Rebecca Gardner. (Photo: Seattle Children’s Research Institute.)

Dr. Rebecca Gardner and her colleagues at Seattle Children’s Research Institute are altering the body’s infection-fighting blood cells to attack cancer in the same way those cells fight viruses. The researchers take a patient’s blood, reprogram the T-cells, and infuse the blood back into the body to find and destroy cancer.

How’s that for a trick?

The institute’s Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research, where Gardner works, is one of only a few places in the country running these types of trials. The center, led by Dr. Michael Jensen, hopes to significantly reduce the need for chemotherapy and radiation.

T Cells. (Credit: Seattle Children’s Research Institute)

Gardner is the researcher leading a new clinical trial, announced last week, for young adults with relapsed acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, who are considered to have less than 20 percent chance of survival.

Meet our newest Geek of the Week, and continue reading for her answers to our questions — including her aspirations for the research, and the source of her inspiration.

You and your colleagues are genetically modifying blood cells — reprogramming them to fight a specific type of cancer. It sounds pretty incredible. How does it work, and what are the potential implications?

The immune system is a very powerful tool that your body is equipped with.  For decades people have been looking at ways to reprogram your immune system to recognize and fight cancer.  It turns out that cancer cells have become very adept at evading the immune system as a way to stay alive.  What we are doing is reprogramming a patient’s T-cells (the infection fighting cells of your immune system) to recognize leukemia cells and then infusing them back into the patient.  When the reprogrammed T cells enter the patient’s body, our hope is that they will immediately go to work, hunt down any leukemia cells and kill them.  Once the T cells have done their work, a small number of them would persist in the body and be able to detect any resurgence of the cancer cells, kill them, and prevent the patient from relapsing.

This is much different than the way we currently treat cancer in which the drugs are given to the patient, kill the cancer cells, but then the drugs are gone and unable to prevent a relapse if the cancer tries to re-emerge.  Another way in which this treatment creates a paradigm shift is that we are specifically targeting the cancer cells.  The vast majority of cancer treatments don’t just target the cancer cells, but can affect all the cells in your body.  Our ultimate goal is that we can use this therapy to replace some or all of our current therapy.

How did you end up being part of this research, and what does it mean to you, personally?

When I was in college, I spent my summers at the National Institutes of Health doing research on T-cells and became very interested in the field of immunology.  During my medical training, I decided I wanted to specialize in pediatric oncology, and once I learned of the field of immunotherapy, I was hooked.  It was the perfect intersection of T cells and oncology.  What better way to treat cancer than using your own body?  The people who have come before me have advanced the field tremendously, and I feel incredibly lucky to have landed in a place where I’m working with leaders in the field and in a community that has truly embraced this research.

Does this approach show any promise for the treatment of other types of cancer, as well?

It does.  Our goal is to be able to offer this therapy to all patients with cancer.  Currently we have encouraging results in the lab using the same technology to reprogram T cells to treat Neuroblastoma, Brain Tumors and Sarcomas.  The platform for generating the modified T cells is the same, we just change the receptor that is expressed by the T cells to recognize each particular type of cancer.  For each type of cancer, we have to look for a protein that is expressed on the surface of the cancer cell and see if we can create a receptor to recognize it. Dr. Mike Jensen (director of Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research) likens the receptor to Velcro in that it causes the T cell to stick to the cancer cell, which allows the T cell to kill the cancer cell.  Once we have identified the protein, we need to look carefully to see if it is expressed on heathy cells as well.  The ideal target is a protein that is only expressed on the cancer cell. That is hard to find and often times we pick a target that is expressed on the cancer cell and a limited amount of healthy cells.

Where do you find your inspiration?

From the patients and their families.  Although I spend the majority of my time in research, the most rewarding part of my job is providing clinical care to pediatric oncology patients.  These kids, who have the misfortune of being diagnosed with cancer, never let you feel sorry for them.  We give them medicine that makes them feel awful in order to cure them of their disease.  One minute they are throwing up from their chemotherapy, and then the next minute, they are running around and making you laugh. They go about living their lives as normally as possible, and I will do everything I can to try and cure more kids, and let them live a long and heathy life. Sometimes it’s hard to put my inspiration into words, and often times I send people to watch this video, which was created by some of our patients earlier this year. I recommend watching it if you haven’t already, and then I think my inspiration becomes obvious.

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you?

I work in a building that used to be a car dealership. The outside may be lacking in appearance, but the inside is great.  It is set up to be a collaborative environment where conversation can happen in the hallways.  My office has huge ceilings and when I am on the phone, people often ask if I am in a tunnel.  The windows are also huge, and I love being in a place where I always know what the weather is doing.  When I am working at the hospital, an entire day can go by where I never get to look outside, so being in the office is fantastic.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why?

With family all over, its great to live in a world where the concept of a long distance phone call no longer exists and you can video chat with the grandparents so they can see their grandkids growing up.  As a side note, I’m also extremely proud of the fact that I’ve had the same phone number since I was 16. I won’t say how old I am, but I’ve had the phone number for more time than not.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Buying my groceries online.  No one should waste their Sunday afternoon in the checkout line.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac

Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.

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Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Time Machine. Once we start curing cancer with our reprogrammed T cells, I’d love to go back and treat all of the kids who we weren’t able to cured the first time.

Best Gadget Ever: Do heated seats count?

Current Phone: iPhone 4s

Favorite App: Zite: I end up reading stuff that I otherwise would never have stumbled across.

First computer: Apple IIe

Favorite hangout: With two kids under 3 years of age, I’m not hip enough to have one. I’m open to suggestions.

Favorite cause: Childhood Cancer, specifically the Ben Towne Foundation

Most important technology of 2012/13: Massive Open Online Courses. Opening up top-tiered education to anyone with a computer and Internet for free is amazing. Although this began prior to the present time, I feel like 2012 was the year in which it truly came into its own, and has taken off. The more people we can educate, the more collaborators we can have, and the faster we can advance our respective fields.

Most important technology of 2015: If I had my time machine, I’d go into the future and find out. Instead I’ll predict that we will have a reprogrammed T cell that we will be able to turn on and off with a pill.

Website: Phase I Leukemia (ALL) Cancer Trial

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