A senior mentor once advised Michael Verneris, MD, Director of Bone Marrow Transplant and Cellular Therapy at Children's Hospital Colorado, to abandon his plans of studying the immune system as a treatment for pediatric cancer.
"'You're wasting your time,'" Dr. Verneris remembers him saying 25 years ago. His mentor worried that the mysteries of the immune system and cancer were too complex to make any meaningful conclusions.
"I didn't take his advice," Dr. Verneris says.
A doctor who fights the hardest battles
From the beginning of his career, Dr. Verneris was always attracted to the toughest cases, devoting his attention to patients with the most severe prognoses. "Those were the ones who needed it the most," Dr. Verneris says.
This determination perhaps made him perfectly suited to delve into the extraordinary complexities of immunity and cancer. At a time when everyone else was studying drug therapy, the largely dismissed field of cellular therapy needed him most.
Almost obsessively devoted to the study of the immune system and stem cells — "It's what I have thought about every day of my life for the last 25 years" — Dr. Verneris was the first to discover how to reduce the recurrence of leukemia after bone marrow transplant by using blood from two umbilical cord units.
Employing the immune system as cancer's worst enemy
Today, he and his research team are studying how to grow or activate aspects of the immune system, including natural killer (NK) cells and T cells, to treat children with cancer.
Roger Giller, MD, who founded the Bone Marrow Transplant Program at Children's Colorado 23 years ago, welcomes this next chapter of research that will inevitably lead to more cures.
"We're manipulating cells outside the body to have specific functions when they’re infused back into patients," Dr. Giller says. "So they may have infection-preventing or -treating capabilities; they may have anti-cancer properties."
Dr. Verneris says that this investment in cellular therapy makes Children's Colorado different.
"Here, that's our vision,” he says. "That activating the immune system will be an important adjunct to more traditional therapies, such as chemotherapy. Our goal is to be able to use the immune system to treat diseases that aren't currently being treated that way."