One in three people in New Jersey will develop cancer once or even twice, but that rate could be reduced to one in six with the knowledge we have already, according to Prof. Eitan Yefenof.
About 50 percent of cancer is caused by environmental factors, the Israeli researcher told a gathering in West Orange on May 15. The other 50 percent is genetic, and that is where he and his team come in. With full funding and “the right questions,” he asserted, they could reduce that figure to one in 12, hopefully by using the body’s natural mechanisms.
“We have the knowledge and the capability,” said Yefenof. “It’s in our hands, and we can begin to achieve that now.”
Yefenof, who is director of the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was speaking at a breakfast briefing organized by American Friends of The Hebrew University. His talk was held at the offices of Lowenstein Sandler law firm in Roseland; close to 20 people were in attendance.
“It’s not so much about understanding what causes one in three to get cancer, but why two out of three remain cancer-free,” he said.
The center, named for New Jersey’s U.S. senator and philanthropist Frank Lautenberg, has over 70 people working in 13 interrelated but independent research units, exploring immunology as it relates to tumors, transplantation, and cellular and molecular functioning.
“Given the genome integrity and our genetic stability, we could assume that we’d all develop cancer and drop dead around the age of our bar mitzvas,” Yefenof said. “But robust protective mechanisms make our organs and tissues resistant to cancer.” That knowledge could be used to enhance prevention and create new therapies, not just for cancer but also for treating ailments like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune deficiency, and transplant rejection.
Although is team operates on the level of basic research, Yefenof did outline some major achievements.
One researcher was puzzled by the presence of two molecules that seemed to have no function in the cell, he explained. She discovered that they serve to block the cell’s ability to summon natural killer cells in response to a destructive intrusion, thus foiling its immune response — like attackers who block surveillance cameras so security personnel aren’t alerted.
A “brilliant” Palestinian researcher at the center, said Yefenof, has been looking into the paradox of fetal development. As the professor put it, a fetus is tolerated by the mother’s body for nine months without rejection, thanks to a barrier layer of natural killer cells that protect the fetus from her immune system. If a sample of fetal tissue is introduced into skin on her hand, however, it causes an almost immediate rejection response.
“If we can apply the fetal mechanism to transplanted organs, it would be a great benefit,” Yefenof said. The “holy grail” of transplantation research, he continued, is to find a natural method to replace the immune suppression drugs currently in use, whose side effects can include cancer.
A member of his audience asked Yefenof whether milk consumption is related to cancer. “I’m a fan of evidence-based medicine,” the Israeli replied with down-to-earth understatement. He acknowledged a connection between red meat and raw meat and cancer, and said that anti-oxidants, which provide some protection against disease, are abundant in vegetables and fruit, but he wouldn’t go further in ruling out foods.
“We still don’t have enough evidence about milk,” he said. “We need to eat, and we have enough to worry about with the knowledge we have.”