Philadelphia cancer researcher and oncologist Dr. Carl June joins Ed Rendell, singer Marian Anderson, and a nun, as the latest recipient of The Philadelphia Award.
June’s team at the University of Pennsylvania developed a novel approach to care for patients with chronic, hard-to-treat leukemia. The immunologists take a patient’s own white blood cells, then re-engineer them to recognized and destroy cancer. But, June says, the modified cells aren’t just leukemia killers.
“They actually proliferate and can survive and persist in the patient,” June said. “So they are self-replicating, which sets them apart very much from drugs. As far as we know, they could last for as long as lifetime.”
June moved to Philadelphia in 1999, in part to work with other groundbreaking researchers at PennMedicine. He said the Philadelphia Award honor “closes the loop” on decades of work.
“The cause of leukemia was discovered in Philadelphia in 1963, which is a genetic break, and that’s called the Philadelphia chromosome,” June said. “That was the first real genetic proof of the cause of cause of cancer. Like a lot of things, the expectations get out hand. You think, once I know the cause of something, it will be pretty straight forward to fix it.”
When a filmmaker asked June recently if he’s trying to cure cancer, the oncologist was flummoxed.
“I stuttered, I couldn’t say the words. But, in fact, we are. That’s why we ask the public, the government, to fund our research,” June said. “That’s what we want, that’s what the public wants.”
About a dozen adults and a handful of children have been treated using the approach developed by June and his team. Both studies are early-phase trials.
“It has gone to patients who are really at a point where this therapy is needed, otherwise they are really running out of options,” said Richard Winneker, senior vice president of research for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
The society is a longtime funder of June’s work.
Natalye Paquin serves on the board of trustees for The Philadelphia Award. She said it wasn’t hard for laypeople, outside of medicine, to recognize the reach and evolution of June’s work.
“First you would just cut the cancer out. Then you would treat it with chemotherapy. The next iteration was radiation, you would treat it with radiation,” Paquin said “Now … it’s gene work.”