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We are proud not only of our long history of scientific excellence and discovery that has helped many cancer patients over the past six decades, but also of our ability to innovate our approach to funding and research to achieve the most impact with our donor-supported resources. Many of the successful results that have been seen in cancer immunotherapy are based on the research discoveries made by Cancer Research Institute scientists.

Here are some of those landmark achievements:

Major Discoveries and Milestones

In 1996, CRI Scientific Advisory Council director James P. Allison, Ph.D., and Matthew F. Krummel, Ph.D., a CRI investigator award recipient, established checkpoint blockade as a powerful new approach to cancer immunotherapy, by showing that an antibody which blocked the activity of a receptor on T cells called CTLA-4 could enhance tumor immunity [i]. This work led directly to clinical trials and paved the way for the FDA approval in 2011 of Yervoy® (ipilimumab), the first treatment shown to extend the lives of patients with advanced melanoma. Dr. Allison along with Dr. Tasuku Honjo received the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research on immune checkpoints and its transformational effects on cancer therapy.

CRI funded research in four laboratories—those of Arlene Sharpe, M.D., Ph.D., Gordon Freeman, Ph.D., Lieping Chen, M.D., Ph.D., and Drew Pardoll, M.D., Ph.D.—that helped discover the PD-1 receptor pathway and establish it as a new immune checkpoint that could be targeted in cancer immunotherapy. Two PD-1 checkpoint inhibitors, Keytruda® (pembrolizumab) and Opdivo® (nivolumab), were approved by the FDA in 2014 for the treatment of advanced melanoma, and Opdivo in 2015 for non-small cell lung cancer.

Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) technology, a form of adoptive T cell therapy, was made possible by decades of research by CRI scientists, including Scientific Advisory Council members Carl H. June, M.D., and Michael Kalos, Ph.D., who was also a CRI postdoctoral fellow, and CRI postdoctoral fellow Isabelle Rivière, Ph.D. CAR T cell therapy has achieved complete responses in 90% of patients with leukemia, and is being tested in several cancers. [ii],[iii],[iv]

As a scientist at Dendreon, former CRI postdoctoral fellow Curtis Ruegg, Ph.D., helped to bring the first dendritic cell-based cancer vaccine—Provenge® (sipuleucel-T), for prostate cancer—to the clinic. It was approved by the FDA in 2010. [v]

In 1999, CRI awarded the first of several grants to Ian H. Frazer, M.D., FRCPA, for work on virus-like particles (VRP)-based papillomavirus vaccines. This work was crucial to the development of Gardasil®, the first preventive vaccine against cervical cancer, approved by the FDA in 2006. Gardasil now protects against nine types of HPV that cause approximately 90% of all cases of cervical cancer worldwide.

In 1993, Pramod Srivastava, M.D., Ph.D., a former CRI fellow and member of the Scientific Advisory Council, identified a novel ‘heat shock protein’ mechanism in cells and developed ways to exploit it for vaccine therapy. This technology led to the development of the Oncophage vaccine for kidney cancer, which became the world’s first therapeutic cancer vaccine to be approved for market, by the Russian Ministry of Public Health in April 2008. The vaccine is also in clinical trials in the U.S. for brain cancer.

In 2002, two studies, by CRI investigator Cassian Yee, M.D., and by CRI fellow Mark Dudley, Ph.D., showed for the first time that adoptive T cell therapy for patients with advanced melanoma using in vitro-expanded T cells can cause tumor regressions[vi],[vii]. In 2006, Dudley and colleagues showed that T cells genetically engineered to contain specific T cell receptors can be used to treat patients with melanoma, bypassing the need to expand tumor-specific T cells from patients[viii].

In 2001, CRI Scientific Advisory Council associate director Robert D. Schreiber, Ph.D., along with former CRI scientific director Lloyd J. Old, M.D., CRI fellow Hiroaki Ikeda, M.D., Ph.D., and Mark J. Smyth, Ph.D., proved the validity of the immunosurveillance concept, which says that the immune system protects against cancer, by showing that mice lacking interferon-gamma and perforin, two molecules expressed on CD8+ T cells that are central in cell-killing, have increased susceptibility to lymphomas. These scientists further established the theory of immunoediting to describe the immune system’s role in both combating cancer and sculpting its evolution[ix],[x],[xi].

In 2000, Louis M. Staudt, M.D., Ph.D., a CRI investigator, and colleagues used DNA microarrays to conduct a systematic characterization of gene expression in diffuse large B cell lymphomas (DLBCL), identifying two molecularly distinct forms of DLBCL. Their results demonstrated that the molecular classification of tumors on the basis of gene expression can thus identify previously undetected and clinically significant subtypes of cancer[xii].

In 1993, CRI researchers Drew Pardoll, M.D., Ph.D., Glenn Dranoff, M.D., Elizabeth Jaffee, M.D., Hyam Levitsky, M.D., and colleagues showed that a vaccine composed of tumor cells irradiated and genetically modified to produce immune system growth factor GM-CSF could induce potent, specific, and long-lasting anti-tumor immunity in mice. This work led to the therapeutic cancer vaccine GVAX[xiii]. In 2014, the FDA designated GVAX given with another immunotherapy, CRS-207, as a “Breakthrough Therapy” for pancreatic cancer.

CRI postdoctoral fellow Xin-Yuan Fu, Ph.D., was a co-discoverer of the STAT gene family in 1992[xiv]. The discovery of the STAT family of proteins and their signaling pathway (called JAK-STAT) is known now as a major pathway involved in immunity, development, and cancer. Novel medicines interfering with JAK-STAT have since been approved for the treatment of numerous diseases.

CRI scientists have identified and characterized numerous cancer antigens that are used in vaccines and other targeted immunotherapies to direct the immune system against cancer. Coley Award winner Thierry Boon, Ph.D., and Scientific Advisory Council member and CRI investigator Alexander Knuth, M.D., were instrumental in discovering the first tumor-specific antigen, called MAGE, in 1991[xv].

In 1985, former CRI postdoctoral fellow Henry Erlich, Ph.D., and Kary Mullis, Ph.D., invented the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which allows scientists to vastly amplify small amounts of DNA, and which has revolutionized molecular biology and medicine[xvi],[xvii].

CRI funded Alvaro Morales, M.D., who, in 1980, demonstrated that Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) is effective in the prevention of recurrence of invasive bladder cancer [xviii]. The FDA approved the use of BCG for superficial bladder cancer in 1990, becoming the standard therapy for the treatment of early-stage bladder cancer.

The p53 tumor suppressor gene, the gene most frequently mutated in human cancers, was discovered independently in 1979 by several groups of researchers, including CRI fellow David Lane, Ph.D., CRI fellow Albert DeLeo, Ph.D., and former CRI scientific director Lloyd J. Old, M.D.[xix],[xx]

In 1978, CRI provided seed funding to Jordan Gutterman, M.D., for the first significant trial of interferon alpha in human cancer patients—the first human testing of a biological therapy for cancer. The study paved the way for the FDA approval of this treatment in 1986 for leukemia[xxi].

The natural killer (NK) cell, an important cell of the innate immune system that fights virally infected and cancerous cells, was discovered in 1975 by CRI postdoctoral fellow Rolf Kiessling, M.D., Ph.D.[xxii]

Major Program Accomplishments

Through our postdoctoral fellowship program, established in 1971, we have supported the continued professional training and early scientific work of nearly 1,300 young immunologists, ensuring a steady stream of talent into the field.

In 2001, CRI, together with Ludwig Cancer Research, established the Cancer Vaccine Collaborative (CVC), a coordinated global network of investigators who collaborate on designing and implementing clinical trials of immunotherapies. Since then, the network has conducted nearly 70 early phase clinical trials of promising immunotherapies, and has produced a breadth of knowledge on the immunological and clinical effects of cancer immunotherapies.

In 2012, we launched the Anna-Maria Clinical Accelerator, a venture philanthropy program designed to speed the development of cancer immunotherapies by facilitating research collaboration between biopharma companies and academic cancer researchers. In three years, the Clinical Accelerator has secured access to more than 30 highly promising immunotherapies.

Our Cancer Immunotherapy Consortium is a “think tank” which convenes the major stakeholders from academia, industry, regulatory bodies, and patient groups who share a common interest in promoting immunotherapy research and development. Accomplishments include: new guidelines for minimal reporting requirements for studies using immunological assays, harmonized guidelines for conducting immunological assays, and the development of improved criteria for monitoring the effectiveness of cancer immunotherapies in clinical trials.

In 2014, CRI launched, the first-of-its-kind resource for patients and caregivers interested in learning about cancer immunotherapy across numerous tumor types. It provides an accessible overview of the science behind cancer immunotherapy, detailed information about cancer immunotherapy clinical trials, and voices from the cancer immunotherapy community. The content and resources of this groundbreaking site have since been folded into the CRI website.

In 2013, CRI established Cancer Immunotherapy Month in June to raise awareness of cancer immunotherapy and its potential to transform cancer treatment in our lifetimes. The campaign has reached millions of people through social media and traditional media, and has energized our biotech and pharmaceutical partners and their employees as well as cancer patients, caregivers, and anyone touched by cancer.

Thanks to donor support, we are able to continue advancing the highest quality science and fostering successful development of new immune-based cancer treatments. To date, CRI has awarded more than $384 million to scientists in more than 30 countries around the world.


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[xvi] Saiki RK, Scharf S, Faloona F, Mullis KB, Horn GT, Erlich HA, Arnheim N. Enzymatic amplification of beta-globin genomic sequences and restriction site analysis for diagnosis of sickle cell anemia. Science 1985 Dec 20; 230: 1350-1354. (PMID: 2999980)

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*Immunotherapy results may vary from patient to patient.