For years, medical researchers at the University of North Dakota and beyond have been working on how to fight cancer more effectively with “superantigens” – substances that produce a powerful immune response in the body.

And this year, scientists are especially excited about a recent discovery: two superantigens that, along with a “helper” molecule, decrease tumors and dramatically lengthen the lives of mice with cancer – and crucially, do it without the negative side effects that often come with superantigen treatments.

It’s a promising way to induce the body’s own immune system to effectively fight tumors, and medical researchers are excited for clinical trials that could begin as soon as late summer.

“From a human perspective, we gave it to a mouse when the mouse was a teenager – six to eight weeks of mouse age,” said Dr. David Bradley, a UND associate professor of biomedical sciences and a lead researcher on the project. The result, he said, was decades of survival, on to as much as 60 or 80 human years.

Bradley said research even showed that mice have lasting protection against new tumors. It’s an exciting finding, and it comes along at a pivotal time – just as the COVID pandemic has drawn enormous attention to the power and promise that medical research holds. For a lot of professionals close to the field, there’s been a sudden rush of public interest – and hope – for what the future could bring.

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“We’ve seen the advancement in medicine of so many things that happened so quickly for us throughout this COVID year,” said Kari Jensen, who oversees clinical research at Altru Health System. “We’ve seen how fast we can make changes when we want to, and we benefited from advances in clinical research.”

From left, Marie Reese, IRB Reliance Specialist, Kari Jensen, Director of Quality and Safety, Ashlee Dagoberg, Research Supervisor, and Josey Chow, Clinical Research Coordinator at Altru Health Systems.
From left, Marie Reese, IRB Reliance Specialist, Kari Jensen, Director of Quality and Safety, Ashlee Dagoberg, Research Supervisor, and Josey Chow, Clinical Research Coordinator at Altru Health Systems. Image: Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Jensen points out the most obvious recent development: COVID vaccines that were developed and began distribution within a year of the pandemic shutting down daily American life. But she also points out developments in convalescent plasma treatments spearheaded at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

That enthusiasm is exciting. But it comes after a mixed year in medical research; especially during the beginning of COVID-19, the virus made many kinds of studies difficult. Health Affairs reported in July that, as of last May, “nearly 100 companies and 240 trials” had seen “disruptions” in their clinical trial research. That’s even true of big pharma companies like Merck or Pfizer, the report said, all of whom had to contend with a life – and a research environment – reoriented around the virus.

In the upper Midwest, the story was similar. Lora Black, Sanford Health’s senior director of clinical research, said the medical group scrambled to make sure patients still had access to trial treatments — which are often important parts of their care.

“A lot of it really took advantage of technology,” she said, like iPads or videoconferencing technology or other kinds of remote tech that would allow patients to give their consent for trials and for researchers to keep conducting them – all while keeping face-to-face exposure to a minimum.

“It was a lot of, ‘How are we going to do this?’” Black said. “And it was working with regulators, the (review boards) and all our chief collaborators to figure out what’s going to work so we can keep this all moving.”

The boost in interest doesn’t necessarily mean a renaissance in medical treatments; research is hard and doesn’t always yield the results that medical scientists are hoping for. One example is the convalescent plasma treatments for COVID that garnered so much initial interest last year. After a surge in attention and government funding – and alongside the distribution of vaccines – Kaiser Health News reports that researchers’ results now leave them far less enthusiastic about the treatment’s prospects.

And Dr. David Terman, an adjunct professor at UND’s medical school – and another leading researcher on the superantigen study – still harbors skepticism about the momentum that COVID might lend researchers. There might be more funding to explore COVID treatments, sure, but that also might come with its own downsides.

“Most people and politicians are unaware of how basic science discoveries from one field may apply to others,” Terman wrote in an email. “Certainly, there will be increased financial support for research targeting COVID treatments. This is likely to dilute and dampen monetary support for cancer research and medical research generally.”

But for now, many medical experts remain excited. There’s a big world out there – and, for the moment, its eyes are fixed on the promise of clinical research. With a little luck, that means volunteers for studies show up in larger and larger numbers.

“I think they understand the only way we move science forward is through clinical trials,” Black said. “And the only way that we can complete those clinical trials is if we have volunteers.”