The new director of Georgia Health Sciences University’s Cancer Center is no stranger to building up major national programs. Dr. Samir N. Khleif is also an experienced researcher into how tumors elude the immune system and how cancer vaccines might work.
Khleif is currently chief of the Cancer Vaccine Section at the National Cancer Institute. He said he was attracted to the Augusta cancer center by the emphasis the university and the state place on cancer and the challenge of building up the program.
“There is a very strong vision from the university and leadership of the university of the importance of cancer care and cancer research,” Khleif said. “That importance position made it a high priority.”
He said he was excited to build a “next level” program, pursuing the goal of becoming an NCI-designated cancer center and working toward GHSU President Ricardo Azziz’s goal of becoming a top 50 research university.
He has done that in Jordan, first building up the King Hussein Cancer Center, then developing the King Hussein Cancer and Biotechnology Institute, a $350 million project done in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“That’s impressive,” said Dr. Andrew Mellor, the immunotherapy center director at GHSU.
Khleif is bringing his research into cancer vaccines and how tumors manipulate and suppress immune response, which wasn’t understood when cancer vaccines were developed 15 years ago.
“We were so naïve at that time because we thought if we identified antigens within the tumors and we generated an immune response against it, voila, we think that we are going to actually be conquering cancer,” Khleif said.
It turns out that cancer takes advantage of natural immune system-dampening pathways.
“What we need in cancer is for the brake pedal to be released because it stops the immune system from responding as robustly as it should against the cancer,” Mellor said. But it shouldn’t go too far, like a pendulum swinging back, he said.
“Autoimmunity is a common finding when you apply immunotherapy in the clinic,” he said. “But that’s a question of balancing the risk/benefit equation, as always.”
Both point toward promising research into how the immune system works, which could pave the way for cancer vaccines.
“The only way of getting clinical outcomes is by understanding the basic level way better than what we understood before,” Khleif said. “The more we understand, the more we’ll have the ammunition to be able to put together more intelligent clinical trials.”