DUARTE – Andrew Raubitschek’s eyes light up when he talks about the new five-story building City of Hope National Medical Center is planning for his field.Raubitschek, head of the center’s new division of cancer immunotherapeutics and tumor immunology, remembers being fascinated as a medical student by the body’s natural ability to fend off infectious disease.Later, he wondered whether he could figure out a way to unleash those same defenses to fight cancer.Now the field – known as immunotherapy – has the technology and the groundwork laid and Raubitschek, who helped develop that foundation, is jealous of his son, Tony, who’s in his first year of medical school and has his future in research and treatment ahead of him.“The ability now, through our better understanding of immunology, through our much more sophisticated molecular biological approaches, now you can do things which 30 years ago you couldn’t do,” he said. “That’s sort of why I envy my son.”Raubitschek imagines that when Tony graduates, the cancer therapies in his medicine bag will be nontoxic products of immunotherapy. “It will be much more effective and we’ll understand much better what are the issues because we really will make magic bullets,” he said.Immunotherapy researchers are working to make such magic bullets by modifying the immune systems’ natural warriors – proteins called antibodies that form in response to infection and white blood cells called T cells. Immunotherapy shows promise Today, Raubitschek’s group builds on City of Hope’s distinguished track record of working with antibodies. They engineer and modify the proteins to deliver bits of radioactive material and other cancer fighting substances directly to cancer cells. The goal is to knock out the diseased cells while minimizing the number of healthy cells affected by the therapy.Although still experimental, the center is currently testing about a dozen of these approaches and those using engineered T cells. One trial involves the infusion of immune cells modified with antibodies into patients who have a form of aggressive brain cancer after surgery to seek out and destroy remaining tumor cells.Immunotherapy hasn’t always been a popular approach, and some previous treatments designed to modify the immune system have met with failure. But Louis Weiner, chairman of medical oncology at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, said a better understanding of the natural immune response has advanced the field. “Immunotherapy has always been recognized as something that could ideally be useful but has been seen as unrealistic, and it’s only been in the last few years, I think, that the power and promise are beginning to become apparent to everybody.”Elsewhere in the country, researchers are working with antibodies and immune cells while others are developing cancer vaccines to prevent cancer from occurring or recurring.Caltech’s Nobel laureate president, David Baltimore, has been experimenting with a novel approach in mice using gene therapy to instruct blood forming stem cells to produce specific cancer fighting immune cells. “It produces more (immune cells) and it produces ones whose specificity of interaction is determined by us, not by the vagaries of the immune system,” Baltimore said. “We’re instructing the cells what kind of specificity they should have.”Raubitschek envisions something he calls multi-modal immunotherapy, which would combine all these tools to destroy cancer with a powerful attack. A new era of therapy The immunotherapy building isn’t the only addition to City of Hope. The NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center is also planning a building to bring together molecular biologists, chemists, computer scientists, statisticians and immunologists to work on experimental therapeutics with a focus on molecular-targeted therapies.Like tailors who fit clothes to the customer, researchers working in this field want to develop therapies that suit the specific molecular problems contributing to each patient’s cancer.They envision a future of personalized cancer care.Last summer, Richard Jove, previously the director of molecular oncology at the Moffit Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla., arrived at City of Hope to fulfill his new role as deputy director of the cancer center, chairman of the division of molecular medicine and co-director of experimental therapeutics.It’s quite a list of titles and the list of projects he and his lab underlings are juggling is even longer. Perhaps that’s because he says his goal is to cure cancer before he gets it. Jove explains his work with eager but measured anxiousness. “We’ve got to hurry up and cure cancer,” he said one recent afternoon. He points to a simple looking equation to explain his underlying mantra: Molecular Signatures + Targeted Therapies = Improved Patient Outcomes. “This is the direction that we’re heading in and this is the direction the field is heading in and this is where the new therapies are going to come for the next, I predict, several decades at least for cancer therapy. So we’re entering a new era of cancer therapy,” he said.Using small gene chips called microarrays that can screen thousands of genes at a time for cancer-caused abnormalities, researchers identify potential molecular targets within cells that if altered, might have an impact on cancers. Figuring out all those potential targets is the process of determining a cancer’s molecular signature. The other part of the equation is coming up with drugs and treatments that will specifically affect a target once it’s been identified.City of Hope researchers have come up with dozens of promising targets and are taking a variety of approaches to develop therapies to address them. One of Jove’s jobs is to streamline the process of moving discoveries in the lab to treatments that can be tested in human clinical trials. He hopes to have one or two dozen drugs in that pipeline within a couple years. Hua Yu, a professor and researcher in the division of cancer immunotherapeutics and tumor immunology and Jove’s wife, focuses on a protein target called Stat3. Her lab has shown that Stat3 often plays a crucial role in helping tumors survive and spread, and also reaches out and disables immune cells. So, in a way, she provides a bridge between City of Hope’s two new buildings, working both with molecular targets and the immune system.As she sees it, cancer researchers must be “scientists with no borders,” collaborating between many fields, she said. “Wherever there is a sign that leads us to think we can help find the cure to cancer, we go for it.” [email protected](626) 578-6300, Ext. 4451 AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORERose Parade grand marshal Rita Moreno talks New Year’s Day outfit and ‘West Side Story’ remake160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!