Carl June - University of Pennsylvania

Forging new battles against cancer

Name: Carl June
Title: Director of translational research, University of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania's Carl June is arguably one of the most well-known researchers in the cancer field right now--and for good reason. June is the director of translational research and a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine in Penn's Abramson Cancer Center and Perelman School of Medicine, and he's designed customized T cells to help give a patient's own immune system the lasting ability to fight cancer.

June first wowed the science community in 2011 with promising results from a small study of three advanced chronic lymphocytic leukemia patients that was published in The New England Journal of Medicine and Science Translational Medicine. The findings, which detailed how June's personalized immune cell therapy wiped out all signs of leukemia in two of three patients, showed the first successful gene transfer therapy to create T cells aimed at battling cancerous tumors. And it helped put a spotlight on the big role that small human trials can play in early-stage drug research. 

The technique involves removing a patient's T cells and inserting new genetic material that enables the T cells to attack and kill cancer cells. The modified cells are then infused back into the patient's body following chemotherapy to fight the remaining tumors. The new approach is the result of more than two decades of research by June and his colleagues and has the potential to help patients with other types of cancer, including brain, lung, ovary, pancreas, prostate and breast cancers.

The therapy, which has been called a breakthrough by other scientists, piqued the interest of pharma giant Novartis ($NVS), which anted up $20 million to license the technology in a pact with the university a year later. Then Novartis bought up Dendreon's ($DNDN) shuttered manufacturing site in New Jersey to produce the therapy.

"The new alliance represents a marquee achievement in Penn's commitment to translational science aimed at expediting the process of bringing novel therapies to patients," said a previous university press release. Penn and Novartis also plan to build a Center for Advanced Cellular Therapies (CACT) on the Penn campus in Philadelphia that will focus on developing similar treatments for a variety of diseases.

So far, the technique has been applied successfully to both adult and pediatric leukemia patients whose cancers have not responded to traditional therapy. The only remaining treatment option for these patients would have been a bone marrow transplant, a procedure that's associated with a mortality risk of at least 20%.

In December 2013, June and his colleagues came out with another round of impressive data for a much larger group of patients. After being treated with June's CAR T therapy, CTL019, a T cell engineered to target cancer cells that express the CD19 protein, a total of 19 of 22 pediatric patients with lethal cases of acute lymphoblastic leukemia had complete remissions. Though 5 of those patients later relapsed, one had developed tumors that did not express CD19. The first patient treated in that study is still in remission after 20 months.

June and his team also tested the therapy in adult patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. In 32 patients, 7 experienced a complete remission and 15 responded positively to the therapy. The data were discussed at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology in New Orleans.

"This strong collaboration with Novartis, combined with our exciting new research, has brought us closer to making CTL019 available for children and adults who have no other effective treatment options," said June in a previous statement.

For his work, June has received numberous awards and accolades, including being named among the top three winners of the inaugural Clinical Research Forum Top 10 Clinical Research Achievement Awards in 2012 and No. 1 among "Heroes of Health & Fitness" in Men's Health magazine last year.  

-- Emily Mullin (email | Twitter)

For more:
Novartis/Penn's customized T cell wows ASH with stellar leukemia data

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Carl June - University of Pennsylvania