On the Forefront of Cancer Research
Sidney Kimmel Cancer Researcher Looks Ahead to an Optimistic Future
“Never, never, never give up!”
Those words of wisdom from Winston Churchill, echoed by an early patient of William Kevin Kelly, DO, inspires 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 has 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
Another field of study is cancer vaccines—those that attempt to treat cancer and those designed to prevent it. At SKCC, there are numerous trials underway, including a colon cancer vaccine currently in clinical trials. “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.
At this moment at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, there over 40 novel drugs in early clinical trials—or Phase 1 protocols—being used in patients. These include immunotherapies, vaccine therapies, and targeted therapies.
“It’s the largest group of novel therapies in the Tri-State area, so it’s a real advantage for our patients to be on the cutting edge of therapy,” Kelly says.
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. And he always remembers that early patient whose words of encouragement stuck with him.
“The patient was in a research study and I walked into his room. He was in what we call high-dose chemotherapy and was having a hard time. I asked, ‘How are you doing?’ And he points to the wall where he put up a poster, and it’s from Winston Churchill, and he said, ‘Never, never, never give up!’ And he turned to me and said, ‘I never want you to give up.’
“And that really speaks to what we do as clinical researchers,” Kelly says. “Because we’re there for the patient, and we never want to give up for them.”