Harnessing our own cells to fight cancer

Dr. Carl June: Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine; Director, Center for Cellular Immunotherapies, Perelman School of Medicine; Director, Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy; University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Carl June is giving cancer patients a fighting chance using their own cells

Two million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year. Dr. Carl June is on a crusade to help cure them – using their own immune systems. By taking a patient’s T cells and engineering them into CAR T cells that can seek out and kill cancer, he’s given hope to countless patients. And today, his FDA-approved drug KYMRIAH® can help certain patients with leukemia and lymphoma have a fighting chance at remission and recovery. For this innovation and compassionate persistence, he’s nominated for the Sanford Lorraine Cross Award.

  1. A Fork in the Road

    Dr. June joins the United States Navy, setting him on an unexpected path to become a physician and researcher.

  2. The Root of T Cell Research

    After completing his medical training with the Navy, Dr. June opens his own lab at the Office of Naval Research to study T cells for HIV and AIDS treatment.

  3. A Renewed Focus

    Dr. June joins the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania and switches his research focus from HIV to cancer and leukemia.

  4. Creating CAR T Cells

    After receiving his first grant, Dr. June starts working to grow T cells into CAR T cells for leukemia.

  5. The Breakthrough

    The first adult patients are treated with Dr. June’s CAR T cell therapy, including Bill Ludwig – patient #1.

  6. Hope for Healthy Futures

    Clinical trials for Dr. June’s CAR T cell therapy are expanded to include the first child patients with pediatric leukemia.

  7. Crafting a Chimera

    After years of successful results, Dr. June’s therapy becomes an FDA-approved drug branded KYMRIAH® after a chimera.

  8. A Growing Impact

    Dr. June’s lab continues to work on CAR T cell therapies for solid cancers and other diseases such as HIV and type 1 diabetes.

“I’ve been blessed to see this therapy come out. It’s gone from this lab experiment and a few people to now world-wide. The progress is moving forward at lightning pace.”

Dr. Carl June

Unexpected turns and unprecedented results.

Millions are diagnosed with cancer each year. It’s a tragedy that touches nearly everyone. And for Dr. Carl June, it’s impacted his own life in unforeseen – and sometimes serendipitous – ways.

“You know, my career has been a lot of twists and turns that I never anticipated,” says Dr. June.

After enlisting in the Navy, Dr. June completed medical school through the military and went on to study infectious diseases at the Office of Naval Research, right when the AIDS epidemic demanded new thinking. But this path led him somewhere he never expected after he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania.

“I never would have thought that working for 10 or 15 years in a completely different field would help so much in cancer,” he says, “And so, for me, coming from the outside in HIV, gave me fresh eyes.”

Dr. June had been studying T cells for decades, first for HIV and then eventually leukemia. In the body, they seek out foreign invaders and tell the body to turn the immune system on or off. They can also last in the body for life, making them especially effective against disease. Unless that disease is cancer.

“The main cause of cancer is mistakes in our DNA code,” he says. “It’s a cell that has gone haywire and grows when it shouldn’t grow. The problem is that our immune system evolved to detect invasions from the outside. Cancer, because it comes from your own cells, looks like it’s our friend.”

But by growing a person’s T cells, Dr. June found that they can be re-engineered into CAR T cells – genetically modified cells with a change in their DNA that helps them recognize cancer as a threat.

“The CAR stands for chimeric antigen receptor,” says Dr. June, explaining that the term is derived from a chimera, a mythical creature made from three different species.

Dr. June’s team found that these CAR T cells were extremely effective in killing cells during laboratory tests. The next step was to test them with real patients.

Making hope his personal mission.

For Dr. June, this mission to find a cancer cure was one that started at home.

After his late wife Cindy died of ovarian cancer, Dr. June gained a renewed focus on the importance of finding a cancer cure. Today, Dr. June is remarried with five children, but Cindy’s spirit has stuck with him as a guiding light to save other families from this pain.

“I’m pretty sure that my wife’s illness gave me a lot of motivation to push ahead and take something that was a back-burner project and put it up front. I don’t think I ever would have done that if my wife had not gotten cancer.”

So in 2010 when Dr. June met Bill Ludwig – his first clinical trial patient – he was personally invested in CAR T cell therapy making a difference for him and his family. And it paid off.

“He had leukemia and had already made his funeral plans,” says Dr. June. “At the time he was 63, and he never thought he was going to make it to Christmas. We treated him August 1. Lo and behold, a month later, he was in remission. He and his wife, Darla, went out and bought an RV. They have gone around the country now living a retirement life. He is 73.”

Stories like Bill’s repeated over and over again, in both adults and eventually child patients. After dozens of cases showing lives saved or end of life quality improvements, Dr. June’s therapy was FDA-approved for pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia and certain types of B cell lymphoma.

And the drug’s name?

“KYMRIAH® – for this Greek chimera cell, almost like a Frankenstein cell, that’s made of different creatures.”

Dr. June’s work hasn’t ended with KYMRIAH®. Today, his lab is devoted to developing the same CAR T cell therapy for solid cancers, type 1 diabetes and – coming back to his roots – HIV. Throughout it all, the miracle stories of his work and Cindy’s spirit keep him going.

To see someone get a new life is a rare event. And I think they probably live it more wisely because of those lessons.”

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