Princess Margaret Cancer Centre: A world leader in immunotherapy

The Princess Margaret Home Lottery to Conquer Cancer is underway and, as usual, the annual fundraiser is likely to sell out. The popularity of the contest is in part due to the dream home and other major prizes available.

Many contributors just want to help fight cancer in one of the top five treatment and research centres in the world. That’s where a scientist discovered how our immune system can attack cancer cells back in the 1980s. It’s where he and his colleagues continue their life-saving research.

Before 1984, scientists knew that the human body contained t-cells, innate warriors that could identify a sick cell and attack it, to keep the rest of the body healthy. But scientists didn’t know what part of the t-cell identified those bad cells, until Tak Mak, who is modest about his dramatic discovery.

By studying the genes carried by the two types of cells, Mak was able to find and clone the t-cell receptor, leading to this understanding of how t-cells defend our bodies. The receptor recognizes an enemy cell, and then t-cells multiply and attack the threat. Some of the t-cells then become memory cells, they remember to attack the same danger. This is how some vaccines work.

Ever since the cloning of the t-cell the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre has become a world leader in immunotherapy, and life changing work is happening in labs like this every day.

Pam Ohashi was Tak Mak’s PhD student when he made the discovery; she now leads clinical trials in immunotherapy at Princess Margaret. Researchers are now learning something long thought impossible, how to train t-cells to attack different kinds of cancer cells, and treat more kinds of cancer than the kinds that respond to immunotherapy now.

She says these miracles would not have been possible without the annual Princess Margaret Lottery, which has injected more than 400 million dollars into the research since 1996.