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News / 01.29.09

Turning cancer’s strength into weakness

By Broad Communications
Immune cells (brown) gather at the site of a tumor in bone marrow following immunotherapyImmune cells (brown) gather at the site of a tumor in bone marrow following immunotherapy.
Image courtesy of Dr. Nir Hacohen

The Blavatnik Family Foundation announced today that it has given Harvard University two gifts totaling $10 million in support of its scientific and technological research. Half of the gift will go to the Broad Institute to support research aimed at developing cancer vaccines based on the genetic abnormalities of individual patients’ tumors.

A typical tumor carries 50 to 100 genetic mutations, which differ from patient to patient. This diversity is, in a sense, one of cancer’s greatest strengths, and a major reason behind so much variability in the response of different patients to traditional cancer treatments. Now, thanks to the rapid evolution of DNA sequencing technologies, it could become cancer’s greatest weakness: Identifying which proteins are altered in an individual’s tumor by finding the unique genetic changes underlying those alterations may allow researchers to then build an “individualized” vaccine out of these aberrant proteins that would stimulate the patient’s own immune system to recognize – and eliminate – the cancer.

"This is a powerful new cancer treatment strategy that we can now pursue thanks to our new ability to systematically find the mutated proteins in any individual’s cancer using new DNA sequencing technologies," said project director Nir Hacohen, assistant professor at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and an associate member of the Broad Institute. "We are deeply grateful to the Blavatnik Family Foundation for their generous and farsighted gift to support this research that could make a dramatic difference in the lives of so many."

More information on the Blavatnik Family Foundation gift to Harvard and the Broad Institute can be found on the Harvard University website.