- Burnett School College of Medicine Faculty News
The Florida Department of Health held a statewide conference on cancer research September 18 at the College of Medicine and featured work being done at the medical school that enhances the body’s natural killer cells to fight leukemia.
The event began with a poignant reminder of the need to fund more cancer research in the state as participants announced that Florida Surgeon General Dr. John Armstrong could not attend because he was undergoing his first treatment for colon cancer. “Cancer touches all of us,” said Dr. Celeste Philip in welcoming attendees to the Florida Health Cancer Research Symposium in Dr. Armstrong’s place. “It’s important for all of us to remember. We are part of the solution.”
Florida funds cancer research through The Bankhead Coley Research Program and the James and Esther King Biomedical Research Program. Together those programs have awarded $226 million to over 575 grants.
The conference highlighted through presentations and posters a variety of funded research projects focused on clinical trials, health disparities and prevention and screening. Topics included clinical trials for better treatment of brain cancer to improving understanding and early diagnosis of colon cancer among Hispanics.
Dr. Alicja Copik, a research scientist at the College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences was one of the featured presenters. Dr. Copik is studying how to use natural killer (NK) white blood cells the body makes as part of the immunity process to kill acute myeloid leukemia.
She has discovered that specially formulated nanoparticles can stimulate the NK cells to attack cancer, without the devastating effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Dr. Copik showed a colorful video of the particle-activated cells literally eating cancer cells, which caused several in the audience to gasp. She explained how the activated natural killer cells would be an important treatment for the leukemia, which usually strikes the elderly, requires grueling chemotherapy, radiation and bone marrow transplants and has a two-year survival rate of 40 percent at best. The average age of acute myeloid leukemia patients is 67, she explained, and many are not strong enough to withstand the therapy. In comparison, the activated NK cells are not toxic.
During her poster presentation, Dr. Copik and her lab technology specialist, Jeremiah Oyer, described the excitement of seeing the cancer attack under the microscope for the first time as the activated NK cells quickly devoured the cancer. “The NK cells took off straight for the tumor,” she said. “They took off running and were eating the cancer.”