At the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland there are between 1500 to 1600 clinical trials going on at the same time. The center is the largest hospital in the country devoted entirely to clinical research and Chief Executive Officer, Dr. James Gilman says it is known for a number of firsts.
“Since the Clinical Center opened in 1953, there have been lots and lots of those firsts in human trials: first drugs to use in HIV infection and AIDS and first successful use of chemotherapy to treat cancer.”
Cancer research has come a long way and much of it now centers around Immunotherapy, using the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells.
“We take cells that are missing something from a patient and we put that something in or we take cells from another patient that's not missing it and we transplant them to a patient that's missing something,” explains Gilman.
In the laboratory of Transplantation Immunotherapy, researchers are working with immune cells referred to as natural killer cells. They’re turning them into superheroes to fight cancer.
“The immune system can surveil this cancer and when it sees a cell behaving irregularly, that has become cancerous, it can kill it at its early stages,” says Dr. Richard Childs.
So what Childs and his team are trying to figure out is why the natural killer cells lose their destructive ability once the cancer cells grow. “We spent a lot of time to enhance their ability to kill.”
By taking the cells out of the body and genetically manipulating them.
In another lab, down the hall where the main area of interest is the human papilloma virus induced cancers, scientists are growing T-cells in incubators.
“We would do surgery and operate and remove one of the widespread tumors of a patient with cervical cancer and we would grow the T-cells that were attacking the tumor out of the tumor,” says Dr. Christian Hinrichs.
They grow the T-cells in large numbers, making them more destructive and then give them back to the patient. “We have two patients whose tumors went away completely.”
It’s immunotherapy that makes CHKD Pediatric Doctor Eric Lowe excited. He works in the child cancer department where the most common form of cancer is acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
He says using T-cell therapy has been very effective on treating leukemia. “Right now, it’s getting through clinical trials and it’s had amazing results. “
Eventually Lowe, hopes the therapy will come to CHKD, but NIH is funding about 70 clinical trials at the hospital.
Pictured here is Brodie Henderson as he waits for a chemotherapy session at CHKD.
So naturally, there’s worry about the $5.8 billion in proposed cuts to NIH in President Trump’s budget.
“Right now, they aren’t funding some things that they think are worthwhile because they don’t have the funding,” adds Lowe.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have come out against the cuts.
And so have research advocates who hang on to hope that medical advances continue.
Kelly Henderson of Hampton has an 11-year-old boy fight brain cancer right now. Brodie was diagnosed with astrocytoma at six-months-old. It recently returned.
Hoping to get into a clinical trial, Brodie applied for one in Washington D.C., but was denied.
His mom says they’ll keep trying.
“If a trial comes up again and he has the opportunity to join it, we would love to do that.”