Late John_Herr

The late John Herr, PhD, headed UVA Health's Center for Research in Contraceptive and Reproductive Health. Some of his last work could yield new cancer treatments, new research suggests. (CREDIT: Dan Addison | UVA Communications)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Even after his death, a scientist from the University of Virginia School of Medicine may end up forever changing the way we treat cancer. John Herr, PhD, died in 2016, but his research is now paving the way for life-saving treatments for solid tumors — common among breast cancer, lung cancer, and melanoma patients.

Before Dr. Herr’s passing, he was collaborating with the UVA Cancer Center’s Craig L. Slingluff Jr., MD, investigating whether a discovery made in Herr’s lab could become a future cancer treatment.

At first, Herr’s lab research wasn’t centered around cancer. He was actually the head of UVA’s Center for Research in Contraceptive and Reproductive Health. In fact, Herr developed the first home fertility test for men, called SpermCheck. The test is available in pharmacies across the country. However, his SAS1B protein discoveries from developing eggs in women are what may have value in cancer immunotherapies. Eight years later, that’s now a reality.

“John was very excited about this protein SAS1B to be a valuable new target on human cancers, and I am delighted that our findings together further support his hope to make such a difference,” says Slingluff, a surgical oncologist and translational immunologist at UVA Health and the UVA School of Medicine, in a media release. “The work we published included work done by Dr. Herr and his team over a period of years, as well as our subsequent work together; so, I am glad that the journal agreed with our request to include John as a senior author.”

Group of Cancer Cells Illustration
Research from a late scientist is now paving the way for life-saving treatments for solid tumors — common among breast cancer, lung cancer, and melanoma patients. (© fotoyou – stock.adobe.com)

SAS1B is found inside female reproductive cells called oocytes, as well as on the surface of different solid cancer cells. This has been verified by Slingluff’s new research.

Also noted by his findings, this protein wasn’t found on the surface of any other normal cells tested in the lab. This means doctors could potentially develop an antibody-based immunotherapy like antibody-drug conjugates or CAR T-cell therapy to attack cancer cells without hurting healthy tissues. Lots of cancer treatments are harsh on healthy cells, which makes going through treatment very difficult. This new avenue of treatment could be a positive step forward.

“Selectively targeting SAS1B has the potential to have broad and profound impact on the treatment, and therefore reduction in mortality, of multiple malignancies,” Slingluff and his colleagues write in the new paper.

Although more work is necessary to validate these findings, the late Dr. Herr’s work definitely shows promise. Focusing on SAS1B could be a game-changer since many solid organ cancers are hard to treat, with a slim selection of effective treatment options.

“Immune therapy is revolutionizing treatment of human cancers,” says Slingluff. “But some cancers have been particularly resistant to immune therapy because of the lack of good targets on those cancers. We hope that this work that John Herr started will bring new hope to patients with those cancers.”

The findings are published in the Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer.

About Shyla Cadogan, RD

Shyla Cadogan is a DMV-Based acute care Registered Dietitian. She holds specialized interests in integrative nutrition and communicating nutrition concepts in a nuanced, approachable way.

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