Why is our immune system usually not capable of eradicating cancerous tumor cells?
This is the main question that Greg Lizee, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Melanoma Medical Oncology, has been trying to answer. His research focuses on the interplay between cancer cells and immune cells, with the ultimate goal of developing immunotherapies that will boost a patient's own immune system to fight off cancer.
Lizee has spent the past decade here studying immunotherapy because he believes this approach is the ideal strategy to use for combating melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, particularly given its track record of responsiveness to immunotherapeutic treatments.
A personal commitment to reversing melanoma trends
On a personal level, Lizee says he's highly motivated to find a way of arresting and reversing the disturbing 30-year trend of increasing rates of melanoma in this country. The American Cancer Society has estimated that in 2013, about 76,690 new melanomas will be diagnosed, and about 9,480 people are expected to die of melanoma.
Lizee points out that while melanoma cases traditionally have been more common among older adults, it's becoming increasingly common among young women. But he maintains hope that the development of new immunotherapies will help to stem the tide.
"Many of the same concepts that apply to fighting a virus also apply to fighting off cancer," says Lizee. "It's just a matter of activating our immune system to recognize our own cancer."
A unique gift to patients
But Lizee's talents go beyond just his research. He's a singer/songwriter in his spare time and has written and performed an original song called "Hold On." The song delivers a powerful message of hope that all cancer patients can relate to.
Lizee, who's been writing songs for the last 15 years, remembered "Hold On" last year when he was asked to contribute to a CD that Melanoma Medical Oncology wanted to create for patients.
"I'd never really thought about it before, but the message in the song is applicable to our patients," Lizee says. "I hope they can relate to the message about being hopeful and optimistic."