Taking a “Moonshot” at Cancer

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

In his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called America to action and asserted that our researchers can find the cure for cancer, a sentiment that received a standing ovation.

We believe that Obama is right. The United States is home to some of the world’s greatest hospitals and research centers, with the NIH serving a central role. Researchers within the IRP explore high-risk, high-reward methods of cancer treatment and have been for decades. New advances in technology suggest that a cure may be closer at hand than ever before.

Inspired by the President’s assertion that “the state of cancer research is strong,” we invite you check out some of the latest cancer research happening in our labs and clinics—each leading us one step closer to cures:

Addressing the Tumor Microenvironment

When a tumor invades the body, the unwelcome guest makes a home for itself—taking advantage of the body’s blood supply, warding off the immune system that seeks its removal, and nourishing itself on healthy cells.

The tumor microenvironment (TME) has recently been recognized as one of the principal causes of lethal metastases or recurring forms of cancers. If scientists could fundamentally understand the methods by which a tumor takes over surrounding areas, clinicians might be able to demolish its comfortable home and kick it out once and for all.

Li Yang, Ph.D., IRP’s head of the Tumor Microenvironment Section in the Laboratory of Cancer Biology and Genetics, is investigating how any pre-existing inflammation within the body could affect the formation of the TME. Using TGF-β as a molecular model, Yang’s team seeks insight into the ‘seed and soil’ hypothesis in cancer metastasis. Preventing a TME from forming could be the first step in beating metastatic cancers.


Treating cancer with your body’s own cells might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s actually one of the hottest topics in cancer research. The boom of focus in this area stems from rapid growth in discoveries of how cancer cells outsmart the body’s own immune system.

In Dr. Jeffrey Schlom’s Laboratory of Tumor Immunology and Biology (LTIB), multiple collaborative groups are exploring how the immune system regulates tumor progression, how immune-based therapies can be personally tailored to target specific types of resistant tumors, and how the use of personalized vaccines can stop cancer from coming back.

To see some IRP ‘Research in Action’ on immunotherapy, read about Dr. James Gulley’s efforts to produce effective and tolerable therapeutic vaccines against cancer. Dr. Gulley also shared his thoughts in a blog post about why the NIH Clinical Center is “The Best Place on Earth,” along with an excerpt from a patient’s email calling it the “happiest hospital on earth.”

Cancer Prevention

The ideal way to beat cancer is to prevent it in the first place. While avoiding known carcinogens and getting regular check-ups are currently the best ways to dodge and catch cancer before it spreads, James Hodge, Ph.D., believes that cancer vaccines are the future.

By combining knowledge about the TME with cancer immunotherapy, Dr. Hodge’s group is developing recombinant viral vaccines that can trigger an effective immune response to cancer, knocking the tumor down before it gets going. In addition to their work, dozens of other IRP researchers are working hard to develop treatments and vaccines that prevent cancer from forming (Gardasil® is a well-known recombinant viral vaccine that is effective in preventing cancers caused by the HPV virus—hear from Drs. Douglas Lowy and John Schiller about their research leading to Gardasil’s development in the video below).

The President’s call for a cancer “moonshot” is certainly ambitious, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility given the brilliant minds and resources available to meet the challenge. The NIH IRP is home to some of the world’s most dedicated and hard-working researchers who have shown that they will stop at nothing to push the boundaries of discovery. Can we really aim for the moon? Why not, when we’re already working with stars.

Category: Science