Dr. Mike Jensen: Stopping Cancer in Its Tracks

Dr. Mike Jensen and laboratory

Dr. Mike Jensen stands outside the special lab where a patient's own T cells will be equipped to fight cancer cells. Seattle Children’s Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research opened in July 2011 at 1100 Olive Way in Seattle and is one of only three places in the nation with the specialized facilities needed to create T-cell bio-therapies specifically for childhood cancer. Other facilities exist to create bio-therapies for adult cancers.

Dr. Mike Jensen intends to start a revolution in pediatric cancer treatment where a child’s own immune system is the cure.

Dr. Mike Jensen sees a day when the words “your child has cancer” will no longer strike terror in the hearts of families. Compared to today’s grueling, multi-year treatments, Jensen’s pioneering approach looks like a walk in the park: a couple of needle pokes and a few days of flu-like symptoms.

Years of treating children with cancer inspired him to hang up his stethoscope and pursue this new approach full-time.

“Even now, 15, 20 years down the road, I get Christmas cards from some patients, and I carry that joy with me,” he says. “But I also carry the memories of children who didn’t survive, either because our treatments weren’t good enough or because the side effects were so bad that they took the child’s life.”

His revolutionary method would cure cancer without the side effects of the radiation, chemotherapy and surgery used today – or the lifelong damage they cause to a child’s developing body and mind.

“Our current cancer treatments have let us make enormous strides in saving children’s lives, but they aren’t smart enough to get rid of the cancer cells and leave the healthy part of the body unharmed,” notes Jensen.

But the immune system is.

Hiding in plain sight

Keaton Wrenn and family

Keaton Wrenn, 6 (with older
sister Mason and mom Lisa),
beat the odds against aggressive
brain cancer five years ago,
but he is still working to
overcome the significant side
effects his treatment had on
his stilldeveloping body.

The human immune system is remarkable. Every day our bodies come in contact with things that could make us really ill. Yet we rarely get sick because our immune system gets rid of these things before they can hurt us.

But cancer cells are tricky. Because they start out as healthy cells, the immune system overlooks them and they multiply undetected.

Jensen is one of the researchers in the U.S. who began working to enable the immune system to recognize cancer cells as dangerous and remove them from the body as it would a cold from our nose.

The key lies in T cells – the primary warrior cells of the immune system. A T cell bumps up against a harmful cell, such as a cold virus, recognizes it as a problem, drills holes in the bad cell’s membrane and deposits little packets of protein that make the cell dissolve.

So Jensen and his team began developing a way to genetically enhance the T cells to recognize and destroy cancer cells the same way.

So close, yet so far

His long-standing collaboration with Dr. Stan Riddell at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center led to their unique approach. Riddell identified a special T-cell that can multiply after being reprogrammed and live long enough after being reintroduced to a child’s body to fight the cancer cells.

Jensen brings the genetic engineering tools to reprogram the T cells so they can recognize the cancer cells.

“We’ve spent nearly two decades figuring out how to create the genetic code that lets T cells see cancer. We have the knowledge and the technologies to make it work,” says Jensen. “What we need now is the financial support that will help us make the leap from curing mice in the lab to curing children in the hospital.”

Typically, medical research is supported by organizations like the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But these organizations tend to fund lab research and offer limited support for the translational research that moves these discoveries to the “bedside” where real patients are.

And though cancer is the leading cause of childhood death by disease, it occurs very rarely in children, making the potential market – and profit margin – too slim to attract the support of pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

“We have the knowledge and the technologies to make it work. What we need now is the financial support that will help us make the leap from curing mice in the lab to curing children in the hospital.”

Dr. Mike Jensen

Seattle Children’s is providing a good deal of support, recently opening a highly specialized cell manufacturing facility to meet the stringent U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards for creating biologic matter that can be given to people. Jensen estimates it will take about 18 to 24 months to secure FDA approval before human clinical trials to test the safety and effectiveness of this new approach can begin.

“My grandfather helped develop the vaccine for diphtheria in the 1930s, so I grew up with the notion that people’s health can be transformed through research,” says Jensen. “We just need support from people who share our vision and our urgency.”

Find out more about Jensen’s work.

Learn how you can help by emailing Jennifer Lowe or calling 206-987-4831.