UAA researchers pioneer new techniques to treat cancer
It's not exactly a cure for cancer, but researchers at the University of Alaska may be getting close.
Max Kullberg is a professor with the University's WWAMI Medical Program. He and his team have been researching a technique to target cancer that's considered cutting edge.
"I think people are somewhat surprised when they hear that cancer immunotherapy is being done in Alaska and that we are on the front lines of that research," said Kullberg.
According to Kullberg, immunotherapy uses the body's own immune system to find and fight cancer cells. It can be especially effective in cancers that have spread or those located in an area where surgery would be difficult. But Kullberg said the results can be limited.
"The problem is, the cancer, as it grows, learns to suppress that immune system, so we have to reactivate it. We have to do something to turn it on and recognize the cancer and that's what we are trying to do," said Kullberg.
To turn on the immune response, Kullberg and his team have developed a technique to deliver tiny bits of genetic material from a patient's own tumor back into their bodies. Several months ago they used the technique on mice with cancer. Kullberg said tumors in all three animals tested completely disappeared.
"It kind of blew me away," said Kullberg. "We've been working on it for 15 years, but to see that it had that effect and that it might really make a difference was really something."
The breakthrough happened about seven months ago, and since then, they've been going full steam ahead with their research. But, Kullberg cautions, it could be as long as a decade before they can try the approach on people. He also said the research almost didn't happen at all.
Fifteen years ago, Kullberg said, no one believed this type of research could be done in Alaska. Specifically, no one wanted to fund it.
Kullberg said they applied for grants without luck. So they turned somewhere else, the board of the Alaska Run for Women, which said yes.
"It was a grant for $15,000 which in science is not a ton but it was a lot for us because we didn't have anything."
The race raises millions of dollars for breast cancer research and every year they've contributed some of that to the work done in the UAA lab. Kullberg said that figure is now over $200,000.
"Our research wouldn't have happened without them and the tremendous support they've given us."
Kullberg said the research has been so successful they are now getting funding from national sources as well. They recently learned the UAA program was awarded $500,000 from the National Institutes of Health.
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