Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 30, 2023

Hopkins invents a new drug to fight 15 cancers

By RACHEL HUANG | March 15, 2018



Researchers found that the immune system can serve as a “vaccine” to be activated to treat metastatic cancers.

According to the American Cancer Society, there is a predicted number of approximately 1.7 million new cancer cases and 600,000 cancer deaths in the United States for 2018. 

Year after year, researchers test out numerous strategies in the hopes of finding a cure for, and eventually conquering, many variations of cancer. 

Recently, researchers at the Hopkins School of Medicine invented an immunotherapy drug that can be targeted to fight cancer.

Cancer happens when cells grow uncontrollably and take over the body’s normal mechanisms. As cells continue to divide via mitosis, these new abnormal cells begin to take over and dominate the entire tissue or organ. These cells clump together to form a tumor that may eventually spread to other parts of the body through a process known as metastasis.

Cancer can be officially categorized into five categories: Carcinomas develop in epithelial tissues that surround internal organs. Sarcomas form in soft tissues such as bones, fats and muscles. Leukemia targets blood producing tissues and the bone marrow. 

Lymphomas starts in the immune system and target T cells or B cells. And finally, central nervous system cancers affect the brain and spinal cord. 

The difficulty that comes with treating cancer largely stems out of how same forms of cancer can affect patients differently. One patient diagnosed with breast cancer may require a completely different treatment plan compared to another patient diagnosed with breast cancer. This common phenomenon can be explained by many factors, such as differences in the individual, differences in breast cancer type and differing degrees of severity. 

Cancer immunotherapy, the technique the Hopkins scientists used, can enhance the immune system’s response to certain forms of cancer.

In some cases, the rapid cellular divisions are not strong enough to be detected as “foreign invaders” by the immune system. Therefore, by targeting and amplifying the immune system’s response, immunotherapy can become a more target-specific treatment approach.

In other cases, such as programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1), the cancer disables the immune system and prevents it from fighting against the cancer cells. The Anti-PD-1 immunotherapies serve to activate the immune system. 

At the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, 15 different types of cancer have proven to be responsive towards Anti-PD-1. 

By activating the immune system, the tumors began to shrink to the point where they became undetectable. 

However, Anti-PD-1 is a treatment that does not work equally well in all patients, and it is a field that researchers are still working to decode.

Cells that knock out the immune system’s response to foreign cancer cells are known as regulatory T cells, or Tregs. 

Tregs make cytotoxic T-lymphocyte associated protein 4 (CTLA-4), which prevents the immune system from making anti-tumor immune cells. 

Atul Bedi, an associate professor of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery at the Hopkins School of Medicine, and his team proposed that immunotherapy treatments could be strengthened by disabling the development of Tregs.

“This is especially challenging because Tregs are not only induced by the TGFbeta (transforming growth factor-beta) protein made by tumor cells, but make their own TGFbeta to maintain their identity and function in the tumor,” Bedi said, according to Hopkins Medicine. “We’ve finally found a way to overcome this hurdle with this CTLA-4-targeted Y-trap.”

Y-traps are what the researchers named this new type of immunotherapy drug. The first CTLA-4-targeted Y-trap was designed to trap TGFbeta and allow anti-tumor immune cells to reduce the production of Tregs.

The Y-traps have been proven to be even more effective than Anti-PD-1 in tests done on mice engineered with human cancer cells. 

The Y-traps are composed of Y-trap antibody molecules that “trap” neighboring molecules and disable them. 

These Y-traps not only showed significant decrease in the growth of tumors, but also responded in cancer types that previously experienced no effects from the Anti-PD-1 drug or other immunotherapy treatments.

Ultimately, Bedi hopes to use Y-traps as treatments for metastatic cancers. In addition, he hopes Y-traps can serve as a “vaccine” to not only help prevent the severity of the cancer, but also to prevent its recurrence. Hopkins, it seems, is one step closer to potentially finding a cure for cancer.

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