Learning from those who don’t get cancer
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Learning from those who don’t get cancer

A conversation with the head of Hebrew U.’s Lautenberg research center

Dr. Eitan Yefenof and associates at Hebrew University’s Lautenberg Center for Immunology and Cancer Research discuss their findings.
Dr. Eitan Yefenof and associates at Hebrew University’s Lautenberg Center for Immunology and Cancer Research discuss their findings.

In a laboratory overdue for a remodeling on the outskirts of Jerusalem, there might be a cure for cancer with the late Senator Frank Lautenberg’s name on it.

Or more likely there is not. You can never tell with cancer research.

“There’s no way to predict what will happen in basic cancer research in another two years,” said Dr. Eitan Yefenof, head of Hebrew University’s Lautenberg Center for Immunology and Cancer Research. “It will depend on the data that will be accumulated in the next two months.”

Dr. Yefenof earned his doctorate in tumor immunology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. He was in New Jersey last week as part of a fundraising drive; his center hopes to relocate to renovated and more spacious quarters if it can come up with the funds.

Mr. Lautenberg put his name on the center long before becoming senator in 1982. Dr. David Weiss, who came from Berkeley to Jerusalem to head the center back in 1967, was married to Mr. Lautenberg’s first cousin, Judy. The family connection led to the funding.

“We are very proud of the affiliation,” Dr. Yefenof said. “It’s a big honor and pride to have his name on his center.” During his trip, Dr. Yefenof met members of the Lautenberg family. “They pledged to help us both financially and morally,” he said.

Besides running the cancer center, Dr. Yefenof teaches immunology and cancer biology at Hebrew University’s medical school

“Our field is extremely dynamic,” he said. “I tell my students that in another ten years a large part of what I’m teaching won’t be relevant any more — but I don’t know which part. Scientific progress in biological studies means you throw away all dogmas and create new ones that will exist for another 15 or 20 years.”

When he decided to study cancer in the early 1970s, it was believed that cancer was caused by a virus. That’s why he specialized in immunology.

It turned out that wasn’t the case.

“The bottom line is that most cancers are not caused by a virus, but viruses can teach us an important lesson about how cancer cells behave,” Dr. Yefenof said. “Both cancer cells and viruses need to protect themselves from the same defenses of the body and use the same strategy.

“There are no shortcuts,” he said. “You have to do all the investigations. If you have a theory that is based on the evidence, you have to study it. The truth is that 20 percent of cancer is caused by a virus. The hepatitis B virus can create chronic inflammation, which will lead to cancer. It took years to find that out.”

The center and its nine laboratories are particularly focusing their research on the body’s natural defenses against cancer.

“One of three individuals today dies of cancer. That figure has not changed since the 1970s. In focusing on why people get cancer, we ended up knowing so much about cancer genes and how cancer develops — and gaining little benefit to the patient. We figured out that we should ask why two out of three of us remain cancer free.

Dr. Eitan Yefenof with the late Senator Frank Lautenberg.
Dr. Eitan Yefenof with the late Senator Frank Lautenberg.

“All of us have cancer genes that can be easily activated. Why do we not all die of cancer at a very young age? It we means we have robust protection abilities.

“We are now turning our attention to the two out of three that remain cancer free. What are the normal mechanisms that prevent them from getting it? Then we can translate that back to cancer patients.

“We have found a number of factors.

“There is a set of white blood cells that are called NK lymphocytes that are natural killer cells,” he said. “Their job is to circulate in the blood. They don’t touch normal cells. When they see a dangerous change in a cell, they will find it and kill it.”

These natural killers attack cells infected with viruses — and cells that have become cancerous.

One group of Hebrew University researchers identified the receptors on the NK cells and the molecules that those cells use to identify an infected cell. With this information, it’s possible for scientists to create NK cells trained to recognize the proteins of cancer cells they otherwise would miss. “It turns out this has important implications for other diseases, like juvenile diabetes,” Dr. Yefenof said.

In type 1 diabetes, “we found that those natural killer cells are recruited into the pancreas by an unknown mechanism to kill the cells that make insulin. When it comes to cancer, we want to enhance the activity of natural killer cells; when it comes to autoimmune diseases, we want to inhibit them.”

Learning to suppress the natural killer cells wouldn’t help just people with diabetes — it could help women who repeatedly miscarry because their immune systems attack the fetus. And it could lead to a targeted replacement for the immunosuppressive drugs taken by transplant patients.

From one perspective, this has taken him far afield from his youthful desire to cure cancer.

“That’s the reality we have to cope with when we do science,” he said. “It’s done by way of serendipity. The music of science takes us from disease to disease.”

The tools of science have changed over the course of Dr. Yefenof’s career. “When I was a young scientist, all we had and all we needed was a microscope and an incubator to do some tissue culturing,” he said. “Today we have flow cytometers and genetic manipulations and of course stem cell technologies. We master all of them but we are dependent on equipment that needs to be operated.”

And the equipment needs space — which brings Dr. Yefenof to the hoped-for upgrade of the Lautenberg Center’s facility.

“We need to integrate all the new technologies that did not exist in the ’60s,” when his laboratory space was built. The new space will also make the center more attractive to young scientist. Its two new labs can help attract young researchers.

The center, Dr. Yefenof said, has been promised “that if we continue to recruit outstanding individuals, we will get to add more.”

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