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Spring 2014
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Five percent. That’s the survival rate at five years for people with liver cancer: a disheartening number for the doctors caring for them, and “a dismal prognosis” for patients, says gastroenterologist Jack Wands. Even more discouraging? More than 30 years after Wands—then a young house officer at Johns Hopkins— first became interested in studying the liver, that number has not really budged.

Until now. Using cutting-edge technology, Wands and his team at Brown’s Liver Research Center are changing the face of liver cancer: they are developing two new therapies that harness the body’s own immune system to fight tumors.

Wands, the Jeffrey and Kimberly Greenberg-Artemis and Martha Joukowsky Professor in Gastroenterology, came to Brown from Harvard in 2000 to establish the Liver Research Center, a 13,000-sq. ft. facility in Providence’s Jewelry District. The Center is home to more than 12 principal investigators and some two dozen post doctoral researchers, all studying the molecular biology of liver diseases.

It’s a sprawling space spread out over two floors. There is a lab where you can’t walk in unless you’ve been vaccinated for hepatitis B, a lab with a “rodent survival surgery” area, and a lab with Geiger counters. (Because some of the experimental treatments involve radioactive isotopes, the staff must ensure there’s no contamination.) One lab holds a liquid nitrogen tank full of thousands of liver cancer cell lines. In Petri dishes in a nearby refrigerator, researchers are growing out some of those liver cancer cells, which they will later dismantle and study—or kill with their new therapies.

Current treatments rely on either surgically removing the tumor or poisoning it with chemotherapy. But surgery is only effective if the tumor is very small and has not yet spread. And chemotherapy is non-specific. Like carpet-bombing your entire body in order to target a few thousand cells, it has many side effects and is difficult to tolerate.

But Wands and his team are using monoclonal antibody technology, which Wands describes as “the new frontier” in cancer treatment. One of the first available drugs to use this technology— Herceptin, for certain types of breast cancer—was an “absolutely dynamite, life-changing drug,” says Wands. Practically overnight, these diagnoses went from death sentences to manageable chronic conditions. Wands hopes his new therapies will do the same for liver cancer.

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