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Dr. Robert Holt: Helping Immune Cells Win

November 5, 2015

Growing up in the lower mainland, I developed the need to figure out how things worked and, if they were broken, how to fix them. The complexities of living systems that derive from the inner workings of cells were the most fascinating and incomprehensible for me, so they were the ultimate challenge. 

Cellular properties are programmed in DNA, so to understand cells, and to understand living systems, it was necessary to know their genetic code – this is the direction I took.

After university (at UBC and U of A), I moved to the USA to join the initial efforts to fully decode human DNA. When that was done, my family and I came back to Vancouver where I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to join the BC Cancer Agency.

It was clear then, as it is now, that when DNA is disrupted, the outcome is cancer. It’s because our genetic programs are so complex and cellular function so intricate, that we still do not understand all of the ways cancer develops; it’s different for different cancer types and for different people. Importantly, however, our immune system has dealt with the threat of cancer over evolutionary time, and is usually very effective.

It is now known that cancer is due to genetic damage but also to the failure of the immune system to detect and eliminate those damaged cells. Immune cells have their own genetic programs, so the current challenge that I see is to define the interactions between cancer cells and immune cells at the level of DNA, and help the immune cells win.

In my next post, I’ll share a bit more about our efforts to provide patients in B.C. with better treatment options for their cancer.

Thanks for reading,