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Written by Hanwen Feng

Other than death and taxes, what else can we expect in life? Unfortunately, knowing some affected by cancer may be added on to that list. Cancer has been perplexing researchers since its first diagnosis, and the disease’s varied manifestations has led scientists to research cures for all types of cancer. One such subset is head and neck cancer. Cases typically occur in the larynx, throat, lips, mouth, nose, and salivary glands. Head and neck cancer consist of 4% of total cancer cases within the United States, and while statistics show that there is a high survival rate among patients, factors such as age, environment, and genetics all contribute to making treatment difficult. Surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy are the current gold standards for cancer treatment, but more recently, immunotherapy has emerged as a potential breakthrough in the field. Immunotherapy prepares a patient’s adaptive immune system to fight cancer. One example is using so-called “cancer vaccines” to expose the immune system to foreign proteins present in head and neck cancer tumors. As a result, the body produces an immune response to decrease the tumor size. 

To better understand the future of immunotherapy treatment, we sat down with immunologist Dr. Michael John Korrer. He works in Dr. Young Kim’s lab at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and is a mentor and avid academic in the field head and neck cancer therapy development. 

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Vanderbilt Vanguard (VV): Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today, Dr. Korrer. What does your most recent research deal with?

Dr. Korrer: The last paper I published examined the NKG2A receptor and how it is similar to the PD-1 checkpoint that has been already discovered. Both receptors have similar roles in inhibiting immune cell function in the tumor microenvironment.

Dr. Korrer’s most recent discovery of the NKG2A receptor as a tumor immune checkpoint earned him a promotion from Postdoctoral Research Fellow to Research Assistant Professor. His paper discusses the increase of tumor-infiltrating CD8 T-cells when NKG2A is inhibited. In conjunction with PD-1 treatment, his work has elucidated a novel target for immunotherapeutics. However, NKG2A was not the first immune marker that he worked with.

Could you tell us a little more about your Ph.D. work?

As a first-year Ph.D. student, the field of immunotherapeutics was not as popular as it is now, so there was a lot to explore. My thesis dealt with how the adenovirus E1A altered the tumorigenicity of cancer cells; essentially, E1A made cancer cells weaker.

One of the most common techniques used in immunology is flow cytometry. Could you tell us a little bit about your passion for this particular method?

Every immunologist should have a love for flow cytometry. I actually had a mentor in graduate school who was really passionate about it. In order to get better as an immunologist, you have to get better at flow [cytometry]. It is the easiest way to criticize your own data for improvements.

Flow cytometry involves tagging single-cell suspensions with antibodies that fluoresce at different wavelengths. The target population of immune cells can be analyzed for their expression of specific checkpoints like NKG2A and E1A. These results can then guide immunologists to change their experimental methods and workflows. 

Where do you think immunotherapy is headed next?

I’m honestly not sure. Immunotherapy started in the 1970s but hasn’t really made a big step until discovery of PD-1 inhibition for treatment. Myeloid cells and T-cells are being looked at now for new checkpoints too; targeting these cells could hold a lot of potential.

But if discovering immunotherapies is so difficult, why should the scientific community still pursue them? Ultimately, they may develop into some of the most powerful tools we have in our quest to defeat cancer. The immune system is present in humans to protect us from foreign substances. By harnessing this pre-existing system of defense, head and neck immunologists aim to utilize our own bodies to more effectively and safely treat cancerous tumors. Although there is still a long road ahead, the novel field of immunotherapy has sparked new hope for cancer patients. 

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