In many ways, defeating cancer is like assembling an exceedingly tricky jigsaw puzzle. We may have some ideas about the big picture, the contours, but we're left with a jumble of interior pieces to match up, little by little. Fortunately, Dr. Phil Greenberg likes puzzles.
"I like the idea of asking a question and finding an answer," he said, his trace Brooklyn accent exuding enthusiasm.
Greenberg and his colleagues focus on one major portion of this puzzle: the function of disease-fighting immune cells called T cells. During his four decades of immunotherapy research at Fred Hutch, he has become a world expert in discovering how T cells can be manipulated to treat a range of cancers — with milder side effects than traditional therapies.
In 1976, Greenberg joined the faculty of the then-young Fred Hutch, which attracted him because of its rare combination of expertise in both cancers and the immune system. Back then, a small but diverse and talented group led by Dr. E. Donnall Thomas was in the early days of developing bone marrow transplantation as a cure for patients with blood cancers. Their work has since provided critical clues about the immune system's potential to eliminate cancer.
“As best we can tell, this would be a better therapy than anything that exists for pancreatic cancer right now,” Greenberg said. “It’s hard to be this optimistic without ever having treated a pancreatic cancer patient with this [experimental therapy], but the biology of what we’re doing looks so good.”
As much as Greenberg’s immunotherapy research has advanced since he joined the Hutch, he sees much more progress coming down the pike.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Greenberg said. “Now we can change T cells to make them function better, make them survive better, make them target the cancer better. The things we’re doing now, we couldn’t even have dreamed about back when I started.”
And he's truly committed to the effort, right down to the car he drives: His license plate reads, "DRTCELL."
— Updated by Susan Keown, Sept. 26, 2016