Welcome to the Gerber Laboratory
The Immune System and Cancer
Immune cells (orange) and blood vessels (green) inside of the tumor
The immune system frequently protects us by destroying invading microorganisms such as viruses and bacteria, but is often ineffective in recognizing and combating cancer. Interestingly, immune cells are very capable of finding and killing cancerous cells, but tumor cells are unique in that they can transform immune cells to elicit tumor-promoting functions and ultimately diminish the response to cancer. The Gerber laboratory focuses on reversing this process and instead “re-activates” these immune cells to attack and eradicate the tumor. This is accomplished by a new line of cancer treatment called immunotherapy (enhancing the body’s own immune system to fight cancer), which has resulted in remarkable anti-tumor responses. Immunotherapy stands to redefine how clinicians treat tumors and may hold the key to eliminating cancer.
A major obstacle blocking the way for effective cancer therapy is the tumor microenvironment. Within the tumor consists a multitude of various components ranging from cancer cells, fibroblasts, blood vessels, immune cells, nerves, bacteria, etc. Cancerous cells “program” the components of the tumor microenvironment to promote the growth of the malignancy through the production and interaction of a very complex milieu of cancer-driving factors. The Gerber lab focuses on understanding the complexities of the tumor microenvironment to identify what factors promote tumor growth and, from this data, develop therapies to counteract these molecules.
Enhancing Cancer Radiotherapy by Targeting the Immune System
One particular goal of the Gerber laboratory is to enhance the efficacy of radiotherapy. We believe that improving this particular cancer treatment would benefit many cancer patients, as one half of all malignancies are treated with radiotherapy. We accomplish this goal though a close collaboration with a fellow member of the Center, Edith Lord, who helped pioneer the concept that the immune system mediated many of the anti-tumor effects of existing cancer therapies, such as radiotherapy. This work ushered in a paradigm shift in the field and suggests that radiotherapy, an effective cancer treatment modality, can be further enhanced by targeting and stimulating immune cells. Using a state-of-the-art small animal radiation delivery system that recapitulates equipment used in clinical radiation oncology, we have demonstrated that immunotherapy can greatly impact the effectiveness of radiotherapy resulting in unprecedented tumor control and even cures in preclinical models. We have also been fortunate to translate some of our findings into clinical trials and continue to take a “bench to bedside” approach to expedite the development of vital treatments for cancer patients.