Carl June and Me

September 14, 2011
57 Views

When I was growing up I would read about scientists. I had this image of super smart people in white lab coats being some place far away – untouchable – and hunched behind microscopes. Growing up in the 50’s I thought of Dr. Jonah Salk and what he discovered to wipe out polio. No more pictures of people in iron lungs. Fewer people using crutches or wheelchairs their whole lives. Scientists made it happen.

When I was growing up I would read about scientists. I had this image of super smart people in white lab coats being some place far away – untouchable – and hunched behind microscopes. Growing up in the 50’s I thought of Dr. Jonah Salk and what he discovered to wipe out polio. No more pictures of people in iron lungs. Fewer people using crutches or wheelchairs their whole lives. Scientists made it happen.

But it was a very long time before I actually knew a scientist. After all, I was a journalism major, right? We hung out with the word people and chased the fire trucks and the politicians. Sciences didn’t get the play they deserved.

But as I have devoted myself to medical information and been living with a chronic leukemia, like many other patients where their disease has become chronic rather than terminal, I have paid more and more attention to the leading edge of science, way ahead of what’s being provided at the local clinic, even earlier in the medical research journey than clinic trials in humans. I am now getting excited about what’s happening in the test tube, or on slides under the microscope or in faint hints on the most sophisticated analysis processes.

Dr. Carl June, who directs translational research at the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, lives in that world of early research. He is a true scientist. But because he works in translational research he tries to move science into the clinic as soon as is wise. This is the stuff early, phase I, clinical trials are made of.

I have met Carl several times. The first was about three years ago when he spoke about his research in blood cancers while we toured his new center. He was trying to rev up a cancer patient’s immune system to kill the cancer cells it missed when the cancer developed the first time around, and to then have the immune system provide active surveillance so cancer cells could not grow again. Scientists around the world have been trying to do this for years.

But guess what? Carl June and his collaborators may have made real progress in making it happen. A couple of weeks ago a prestigious  journal reported that this team has treated three patients with advanced chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), the same disease I have, with a genetically altered HIV virus. The virus targeted the B-cells of the patients, healthy ones and the millions of cancerous ones. And in two of the patients gave them a new lease on life, a complete remission. The third received a partial remission. They are trying to figure out why the difference.

This is not necessarily “kindler, gentler” cancer therapy. But it may well be lifesaving and have tremendous lessons in the fight against many other cancers. Now Carl and others on the team like Dr. David Porter are on the interview circuit. They are in the NY Times today. Everyone wants to talk to them and Penn reports 5,000 patients with a wide range of cancers have written Carl to see if the experimental medicine can help them. He needs patients for expanded research and he should have no problem as people line up.

I have interviewed Carl a few times. He  seems to be an unassuming man. Not at all a showman. Not at all slick. Just dedicated to science. We hope to interview him again in a week or so, specifically for CLL and lymphoma patients who rely on us.

In the meantime, I guess I know a real scientist now and the significance of what discoveries they make has become much more personal. What Carl has done could one day save my life.

Wishing you and your family the best of health!

Andrew

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