Professor’s cancer research is cutting edge

It’s about 2 p.m. in a classroom on campus. The human breast cancer cells have been decontaminated, contained and are cultivating in the refrigerator.

Nearby, human cells are steadily growing in an incubator while the gene-mutated mice are downstairs in their climate-controlled environment.

If most classrooms at the University contained such elements, the rate of students sleeping in class would decrease significantly.

However, this isn’t a normal classroom. It is a lab at the Moffit Cancer Center operated by professor William Kerr.

Within the next five years, it is highly possible that Kerr’s research will save countless lives and transform the medical field forever.

A graduate of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, Kerr was a chemistry major with plans of attending medical school, as his family expected him to.

It was when he was attending graduate school at the University of Alabama, however, that Kerr truly discovered his immense fascination with cells, their complexity and their ability to differentiate and change.

Although he said that it would have been nice to become a family physician, it was obvious that he wanted something a little different. As long as he can remember, he has been inquisitive and has had an intrinsic drive for research. “I often tell my students scientific discovery is my fix,” he said.

Kerr and his team are currently embarking on a medical breakthrough concerning bone marrow transplantation, as his published article, “Influence of SHIP on the Natural Killer Repertoire and Allogenic Bone Marrow Transplantation” in Science magazine states.

Currently, about one in five people can find a donor for bone marrow transplantation, Kerr said.

There are two principle issues that explain why many allogenic bone marrow transplantations – getting bone marrow from one patient to the other – don’t work. “Either it gets rejected initially, or after it gets in and starts setting up shop, it turns around and attacks the patient’s body,” Kerr said.

This second complication, including the attack of the body, is called Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD). GVHD has become the reason for many deaths in bone marrow patients.

When allogenic bone marrow transplants are performed, doctors have to try to match the donor to the patient as closely as possible.

The only way they can complete a match is if the people are identical twins, which is quite rare.

Kerr and his team, however, have come across a gene called SH2, which contains isositol phosphate (SHIP) that allows them to perform bone marrow transplants in mice with completely incompatible traits.

The gene works by altering the immune system of the mice temporarily so that they will not have complications receiving the transplants from other mice.

The SHIP gene also is effective in preventing GVHD.

“I think the first step would be finding a chemical that could do this in humans and see if we could make bone marrow transplants work better,” said Kerr. “People could get a transplant that doesn’t have a matched donor. If they have a matched donor, we will give them SHIP inhibitors so they don’t get Graft Versus Host Disease.”

Once they have found bone marrow immunity, the next step would be doing the same with organs, which could transform the entire world of transplantation.

Kerr is already doing research and writing a grant on this subject and sees transplanting solid organs that are incompatible with the patient as an extension of his bone marrow transplant research.

Kerr’s secondary objective concerns lung and breast cancer. He and his team have found a way to significantly reduce the level of cancer genes in mice to the point where they are barely visible.

LPS-responsive and beige-like anchor (LRBA) is a gene that is found to be increased in both breast and lung tumors. With the help of a new genetic procedure called RNA Interference, Kerr and his team have found a way to decrease the amount of tumor cells in mice. If this is successful in humans, it could become the foundation needed to find a cure for cancer.

Inclusion of stem cell research is an imperative factor to finding cures in the world of science, which has been a controversial issue.

While he does not intend to advocate that everyone’s ideas on the matter should coincide with his, he does strongly encourage people to do research on the issue before deciding where they stand. “It can take as little as 20 minutes,” said Kerr. “There is a lot of good information and you don’t have to crack open a 500 page textbook to read it. People really have an obligation as part of the body politic to try as best they can to find the facts out.”

Kerr has yet to be challenged on this matter, but he is eager to speak about it and feels that students as well as the American public should “be as informed as possible” on the important issue of stem cell research.

“There is a lot of misinformation being put out right now,” Kerr said. “In my opinion particularly, service groups saying adult stem cells can cure all these diseases; we don’t need the embroytic stem cells, but if you look at the diseases they’re saying there are cures for from adult stem cells, it’s just not true.”

As a scientist, Kerr would like the public to know that, contrary to some beliefs, embryos are not killed.

“That’s another piece of disinformation,” said Kerr. “We don’t have to go around destroying embryos. There are plenty of embryos that die naturally each year and are in vitro fertilization clinics; we can make new embryonic stem cell lines from those. We don’t have to create embryos and kill them just to make embryonic stem cells.”

Embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that develop from eggs that are fertilized at in vitro fertilization clinics. They are donated for research purposes with informed consent of the donors, not from eggs fertilized in a woman’s body.

“Fertility clinics can only hold frozen embryos for a certain amount of time until it would be hazardous to use the embryo for artificial insemination, and these embryos would have been discarded anyhow,” Kerr said.

Kerr strongly feels that it is unethical, however, to stop researching just because some people feel uncomfortable “playing with life,” when essentially researching can save lives.

“We want to explore all avenues,” Kerr said. “There’s no guarantees in science. There’s a potential, and that’s why we have to continue to do science and do research because – usually free willed – we make advances and they turn around to benefit humanity.”