Local Researcher Unlocks the Key to Curing Cancer

For over 90 years, the Philadelphia Awards have honored citizens who have improved the lives of those living in the City of Brotherly Love. Natalye Paquin, the chairwoman for the award’s board of trustees, says that the selection for the 2012 recipient was a no-brainer.

“It has to be work of such significance that Philadelphians and hopefully members beyond Philadelphia can benefit,” she said.

With this in mind, the board selected Dr. Carl June as the 2012 winner. June, a researcher at Penn Medicine, has been credited by many with unlocking the key to curing cancer. June and his team of researchers have spent two decades developing a breakthrough experimental treatment that kills cancer in leukemia patients.

“We treated the first cancer patient, an adult, in July of 2010,” he said. “He’s doing fine and enjoying retirement.”

Nine of the 12 patients who received Dr. June’s treatment are in either full or partial remission after three years. One of those patients is 7-year-old Emma Whitehead of Philipsburg, Pa. Whitehead was near death with leukemia before receiving Dr. June’s treatment. Today however, her cancer is gone.

Perhaps even more amazing than the turnaround of the patients is what June’s therapy uses to fight the cancer -- HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

“It’s a disabled virus,” said June. “But it retains the one essential feature of HIV which is the ability to insert new genes into cells.”

In June’s therapy, billions of T-cells are taken from the cancer patient’s body. The T-cells are then taken into the lab where the DNA in the cells is altered with a harmless form of the HIV virus. The altered cells, now programmed to recognize, target and kill the cancer, are then placed back into the patient’s body.

June says the cells, which he refers to as “serial killers,” stay dormant in the body unless the cancer returns.

“That’s why you can have a vaccine when you’re a child and it stays with you,” he said.

June says the next step will be to use gene therapy to fight other cancers. Trials are set to start this summer for patients with pancreatic cancer. Dr. June is set to receive his award this Friday.

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