Rates of kidney cancer have been steadily rising in the United States for a decade, stubbornly resisting preventive efforts.

However, a promising new approach where the body’s own immune system is harnessed and activated to fight cancer is gaining traction against the disease, and W. Kimryn Rathmell, a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University, suspects its effectiveness lies buried deep in the human genome.

Her research is vital to the estimated 65,340 people who were expected to be diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2018.

Rathmell will talk about the latest research to understand the disease, clinically known as renal cell carcinoma, during the Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 28. The public is invited.

According to the National Cancer Institute, kidney cancer was expected to claim about 15,000 lives in 2018.

More than 90 percent of the most common type of kidney cancer have a genetic change that leads to the loss of an important part of the person’s DNA called a tumor suppressor gene. 

“Immunotherapy is among the most exciting advances in biomedicine in recent times and may be the single most promising approach to treating cancer. It offers a new scientific approach that is providing hope for patients with several types of cancer, including renal cell carcinoma,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “Dr. Rathmell’s lab has shown that these tumors uniquely activate a series of evolutionarily ancient human endogenous retroviruses that are also play a role in activating immune cells. Recreating the expression of these elements represents a promising new therapeutic opportunity for immunotherapy for a larger set of patients.”

Rathmell, the Cornelius Craig Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt University and director of the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, is a physician-scientist devoted to studying the molecular biology of renal cell carcinomas and rare tumors of the kidney. 

She studied chemistry and biology as an undergraduate at the University of Northern Iowa and completed her doctoral degree in biophysics and her medical degree at Stanford University.

Rathmell completed internal medicine training at the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania and a fellowship in medical oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. She joined the Department of Medicine and the Department of Genetics at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2003 and was a founding member of the Department of Urology there before relocating to Vanderbilt in 2015.

The Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC is free and open to the public at 2 Riverside Circle, Roanoke, Virginia. It begins at 5:30 p.m., with a reception starting at 5 p.m.

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