Curing cancer through the immune system

Noted cancer research Thomas Gajewski (guy-EV-ski) will discuss how the body’s own immune system can be used to combat cancer when he speaks in Brookings April 24.

“Curing Cancer Through the Immune System” is the message the University of Chicago researcher will deliver at 7 p.m. in the downstairs auditorium of the South Dakota Art Museum on the South Dakota State University campus. It is sponsored by the SDSU College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions and intended for the general public. There is no admission fee.

Gajewski is a pioneer in the field of cancer immunotherapy, one of the most promising approaches to cancer treatment in decades.

Gajewski was educated at the University of Chicago and has worked there since 1997. He is currently a professor in the Departments of Pathology, Medicine and the Ben May Cancer Institute at the University of Chicago and director of the immunology and cancer program at the University of Chicago Medicine.

Early this year he received a $4.2 million award from the National Cancer Institute, a branch of the National Institutes of Health. The Outstanding Investigator Award guarantees $600,000 in direct costs per year for seven years. By providing seven years of financial stability, these awards encourage investigators to take on long-term projects with significant potential.

“We can now focus entirely on doing the work and worry less about writing grant applications, making us more productive and efficient,” Gajewski said.

Finding ways to keep T cells working

He explains that cancer immunotherapy exploits the power and specificity of the immune system to fight cancer. First tested in melanoma, immunotherapy has led to complete remissions in many cancer types, often with limited side effects.

Specifically, Gajewski’s team studies new ways to overcome a tumor’s ability to resist immunotherapy, with a focus on drugs that help the immune system, especially T cells, gain access to tumor sites. T cells are the body’s natural means for fighting cancer cells, but the tumors produce a protein that prevents the T cells from invading and going to work

Gajewski’s lab team has “treated a large number of melanoma patients using immunotherapies,” he said, “and we now have a great deal of data about the interactions between a patient’s tumors and his or her immune system. We know who responded to treatment and who didn’t.

“Now we’re cataloguing genetic clues that correlate with response versus resistance. This not only should help us predict who is most likely to benefit, but more importantly identify new therapies to overcome resistance and expand efficacy.”

They are also looking at connections between the gut microbiota – the microbes that live in a patient’s digestive tract – and the immune system’s response to cancer.

Lecture funded by longtime pharmacist

As part of his stay in Brookings, the noted researcher will give a separate scientific lecture and meet individually with SDSU faculty.

“This is a great opportunity for our faculty and students to meet with a man who has been pre-eminent in cancer research for two decades,” according to Xiangming Guan, assistant dean for research in the College of Pharmacy and coordinator of the Francis J. “Johnny” Miller Lecture, which was created by funds from his endowment.

Miller was a longtime pharmacist and drugstore owner in Redfield and Huron as well as his hometown of Gettysburg.

Cancer is one of the major research focus areas in the College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions. The Francis Miller lectureship was established to bring leading cancer researchers to the campus and to provide opportunity for the faculty, students and the public to learn from leading scientists.

For more information on the talk, contact Guan at 605-688-5314 or


About South Dakota State University
Founded in 1881, South Dakota State University is the state’s Morrill Act land-grant institution as well as its largest, most comprehensive school of higher education. SDSU confers degrees from six different colleges representing nearly 200 majors, minors and specializations. The institution also offers 35 master’s degree programs, 15 Ph.D. and two professional programs.

The work of the university is carried out on a residential campus in Brookings, at sites in Sioux Falls, Pierre and Rapid City, and through Extension offices and Agricultural Experiment Station research sites across the state.