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Sidney Kimmel Cancer Researcher Sees Optimistic Future

 3 min read

“Never, never, never give up!”

Those words of wisdom from Winston Churchill, echoed by an early patient of William Kevin Kelly, DO, inspire the cancer researcher to diligently keep working on finding new treatments for the disease.

Kelly, a medical oncologist in the Department of Medical Oncology, director of Solid Tumor Oncology at Thomas Jefferson University, and associate director of Clinical Research for the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, constantly reminds himself that “when we do clinical research we do it for the patient.”

In his 30 years as a researcher, Kelly has seen great advances in treatments for the disease, but says it has just been over the past decade that there has been an exponential growth in the number of novel therapies entering clinical trials, as well as the number of drugs being approved.

“Advances in cancer treatments have dramatically increased due to our better understanding of how cancers are formed, the molecular or genetic drivers of cancer, and how we can harness the patient’s immune system to fight the cancer.”

Today, he says the pace of research and approval for new therapies has escalated exponentially. One of the most promising new therapies is CAR T, which manipulates immune cells called T cells (a type of white blood cells) in the lab so they can find and destroy cancer cells. CAR T has been shown effective in lymphomas, leukemia, and multiple myeloma; it has not proved to have the same success in solid tumors—yet. “But we’re working on it.”

Kelly believes “in 10 years, we’re going to be treating cancer totally different than we are today; it’s going to be a combination of how we induce the immune system in the patients to fight the cancer plus other novel agents that we have to make them work better.”

Clinical Trials & Cancer Vaccines

A promising field of study is cancer vaccines—those that attempt to treat cancer and those designed to prevent it. Right now at Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, there are more than 40 novel drugs in early clinical trials—or Phase 1 protocols—being used in patients. These include a colon cancer vaccine, immunotherapies, and targeted therapies. “They’re entering the later stage of testing, so you’re going to see these hopefully be used as treatments for patients in the next several years,” he says.

The Philadelphia Prostate Cancer Biome Project

Another focus within the department is the Philadelphia Prostate Cancer Biome Project, which was established through philanthropy in 2019 to propel the boundaries of prostate cancer science, notably through the impactful Pilot Award Program.

As of December 2023, 19 pilot awards have been funded, aiding the research of 72 staff members. These awards also help secure extramural grants. The Biome Project has become a catalyst for groundbreaking discoveries in the fight to find better treatments, and possible cure, for prostate cancer.

Kelly notes that the work of the Biome Project has advanced the scientific community’s understanding of the disease, and has launched one paradigm-shifting clinical trial that has changed the thinking of immunotherapy for prostate cancer.

The Importance of Philanthropy & Patients

Kelly attributes any success in cancer research progress to generous donors who fund the pioneering studies, and the patients who contribute their time for clinical trials.

“I always thank the patients for participating in clinical trials since without them we would not be able to make progress in developing new therapies for cancer patients,” he says.