Cameron Turtle, immunotherapy researcher and oncologist

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Cameron Turtle, immunotherapy researcher and oncologist

Tapping the immune system to prevent cancer’s return

Cancer is stubborn. While it’s often possible to knock it down, it’s difficult to knock it out. Dr. Cameron Turtle is studying how to help cancer patients deliver a lasting blow to this tenacious disease.

Turtle, a hematology oncologist in the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is among many scientists around the world who are harnessing the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. Much of their work involves using T cells — a type of white blood cell — to attack tumors.

Turtle’s research focuses on a subset of T cells known as central memory T cells. These cells are one of the keys to our ability to develop immunity from viral infections — and someday could free cancer patients from their disease.

Different types of T cells play different roles in helping the immune system fight infections. Central memory T cells not only kill infected cells, but remain in the body in case the same infection sparks up again. If it does, they quickly multiply to snuff it out.

“The idea of using T cells to attack tumors is not new,” Turtle said, “but using central memory cells to kill tumors and provide long lasting protection against relapse may add a new dimension to cancer treatment.”

Turtle is the lead investigator on a clinical trial that will test whether central memory T cells can be used to treat patients with leukemia and lymphoma after a bone marrow transplant.

After undergoing a bone marrow transplant, trial participants will receive an infusion of central memory T cells that have been genetically engineered so they can recognize and eliminate their malignancy if it returns. Researchers will follow participants for 15 years after treatment. “The goal, of course, is that they remain cancer-free,” Turtle said.

The chance to help unlock the lifesaving potential of central memory cells brought Turtle all the way from Australia to join Dr. Stan Riddell’s lab at Fred Hutch in 2005. Turtle, a bone marrow transplant specialist with an interest in T-cell research, felt Fred Hutch was “the place to be” if he wanted to improve care for leukemia and lymphoma patients.

“I love to see patients get better and get on with their lives after a transplant, but it would be even better if we could make sure their disease never returns,” Turtle said. “Although we still have a lot to learn, central memory T cells could be part of the answer.”

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