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Researchers seeking alternative to surgery for brain cancers

Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With a four-year, $450,000 grant from the James S. McDonnell Foundation, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are working to develop an immunotherapy that would be a safe alternative to surgery for brain cancers.

Current treatments of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy often provide only marginal survival benefits and sometimes leave patients, especially children, with losses of cognitive functions, said lead investigator David M. Kranz, a professor of biochemistry.

Kranz’s team will use a bioengineering method called yeast display – created by Kranz and former U. of I. chemical engineer K. Dane Wittrup – to remove and rebuild T-cell receptors for strong binding to tumor cells. Reintroduction into the body would alter T cells so they would bind only to a tumor and destroy it. The approach would solve a tolerance problem in which the binding capacity of natural T cells to tumors is weakened or absent.

Using his flow-cytometry-driven technique, Kranz’s lab to date has created T-cell receptors with 1,000-fold stronger binding capacity than natural ones. These engineered receptors could some day be useful in the treatment of brain and other types of cancer.

The approach first will be tested in mice to see if altered T cells indeed eradicate tumors and to determine optimum binding properties. Development and testing of improved T-cell receptors against various human brain-cancer cell lines would follow. The goal is a therapy with minimal side effects.

Kranz’s team includes co-principal investigator Edward J. Roy, professor of pathology in the U. of I. College of Medicine at Urbana-Champaign, and Timothy M. Fan, professor of veterinary clinical medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

The grant began Aug. 1 and is from the foundation’s initiative in brain cancer research.