Immune to Cancer: The CRI Blog




Celebrating the Impact of CRI-Funded Black Immunologists in Cancer Immunotherapy

The impacts of Black people on cancer research and immunotherapy have been instrumental, going back to at least the late 17th century with Onesimus’s mitigation of smallpox in Massachusetts. More recently, Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett, PhD, assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was crucial in the testing and development of Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine.

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This Black History Month, CRI is honored to recognize the key achievements of Black immunologists in both distant and recent memory and illuminate some of the work that up-and-coming Black immunologists are contributing to cancer immunotherapy research. CRI is grateful to have had meaningful conversations with three of our funded scientists about disparities in the Black community related to cancer treatment and representation in STEM careers, as well as their research.

Lloyd Bod, PhD, assistant professor of Medicine at Massachusetts General Cancer Center, principal investigator in the Krantz Family Center for Cancer Research, and CRI-Thompson Family Foundation CLIP Investigator, gave CRI his input. Dr. Bod’s research centers around solid cancers, including colorectal cancer. Additionally, CRI-Irvington Postdoctoral Fellow Ayana Ruffin, PhD (Emory University), who focuses her research on melanoma, also contributed. Lastly, CRI-Bristol Myers Squibb Postdoctoral Fellow Lauren Banks, PhD (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center), whose research focuses on sarcomas, provided her thoughts as well. Drs. Ruffin and Banks are supported by the CRI Irvington Postdoctoral Fellowship to Promote Racial Diversity.

Can you tell us a little bit about the research you’re working on?

Dr. Bod:

I am exploring a new approach in cancer treatment by studying B cells, a type of immune cell that is often overlooked but plays a crucial role in fighting cancer. Unlike most treatments that focus on T cells to attack cancer, my research aims to understand how B cells contribute to the body’s defense against tumors, identifying how they can either help or hinder this process. By analyzing the various roles and behaviors of B cells within tumors, we are working on finding new ways to boost the body’s natural ability to fight cancer with fewer side effects. This could lead to developing new treatments that make cancer therapies more effective and safer for patients.

Dr. Ruffin:

My research is centered around investigating the immune response in melanoma patients, following treatment with immunotherapy targeting Semaphorin 4D (SEMA4D). I am interested in understanding how blocking SEMA4D improves efficacy of current immunotherapies targeting PD1 and CTLA4. Data from our recent clinical trial indicates that SEMA4D therapy increases immune infiltration into tumors and limits the suppressive myeloid cells that are present. Further, the immune cells form immune structures called tertiary lymphoid structures. We believe these are key components that allow for better response to therapy. I plan to determine how SEMA4D therapy induces these structures and uncover what happens within them in patients who respond to treatment versus those who do not.

Dr. Banks:

My research in the lab focuses on finding novel approaches to bring T-cell-based therapies to sarcomas by targeting oncogenic driver fusions. Sarcomas are a heterogeneous group of tumors of mesenchymal origin that are notoriously difficult to treat. Many are driven by a protein abnormality called a fusion protein, where two proteins that normally exist separately in cells are genetically fused. These fusion proteins only exist in tumor cells and so are an ideal T-cell target. In the lab, I am using a prototypical fusion-driven sarcoma, Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumor (DSRCT), as a starting point and proof of concept. We are working to find T-cell receptors that recognize the fusion protein that defines this type of soft tissue sarcoma. The ultimate goal is to identify a therapeutic candidate that we can move forward into clinical trials.

What does it mean to you to be a CRI CLIP Investigator?

Dr. Bod:

Being named a CRI-Thompson Family Foundation CLIP Investigator is an honor and marks the first recognition my lab has received since its beginning in late 2022. It recognizes the potential of our work on B cells in cancer and supports our efforts to develop treatments that could transform how we fight this disease. This role not only provides crucial funding but also connects me with a network of researchers dedicated to making groundbreaking discoveries in immunotherapy. It is a commitment to pursuing innovative science that can lead to life-saving therapies for patients worldwide.

What does it mean to you to be a CRI Postdoctoral Fellow?

Dr. Ruffin:

I am extremely grateful to have been selected to be a CRI Irvington Postdoctoral Fellow. The financial support from CRI will really empower me to complete my postdoctoral training, build, and launch my independent research program. Additionally, through CRI I have the opportunity to network and build relationships with the amazing scientists who are also funded by the institute.

Dr. Banks:

The CRI-Bristol Myers Squibb Postdoctoral Fellowship has enabled me not only to have protected time to conduct my work in the laboratory, but also to attend international conferences where I have been able to present and discuss my work with immunologists from around the world. Such networking experiences are so essential to career building, but often without resources they can be difficult to engage in. I have also been able to attend seminars focused on DEI initiatives through support from the CRI-Bristol Myers Squibb Postdoctoral Fellowship. These events often highlight work by successful researchers with similar backgrounds to myself, whose professional journeys as Black physician scientists more closely resemble what I and my family have gone through to be where we are today.

There are conversations happening now about how to address cancer care disparities among different populations in society. How can scientific and academic institutions address disparities in cancer care among the Black community, in your opinion?

Dr. Bod:

To tackle disparities in cancer care, scientific and academic institutions must invest more into inclusive research that reflects the diversity of the population, ensuring pre-clinical and clinical studies involving participants from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds. A dramatic example, among many, is colorectal cancer, the core topic on our CLIP project, which is 40% more deadly within the Black community. Beyond improving clinical care, institutions should also advance education and outreach in these communities to raise awareness about cancer risks and screenings, which are particularly critical in colorectal cancer.

Dr. Ruffin:

I think it is really important for scientific and academic institutions to work to improve health literacy in the Black community.  Increasing access to information about cancer screening tests and when to get them, and introducing different cancer treatment options and how they work, is crucial so that Black patients can make informed decisions about their care. It is equally important in my opinion that we work to include more Black patients in clinical trials and translational research programs that are developing new therapies for cancer. However, due to the unfortunate history with the Black community and medicine, we need to be transparent about what goes on in trials and how patient samples are used for research and the importance of these things. Black people often get diagnosed at later stages and have aggressive forms of the disease. There may be genetic or environmental factors that influence this which need to be investigated to ensure that the treatments are effective. Lastly, I think we need to do our best to make access to care as affordable as possible.

Dr. Banks:

This is such a good question with a complicated answer. From implicit bias in care providers and patients alike to the socioeconomic deserts created by the financial toxicity of our healthcare system, so much has to change. Focusing first on academics and research: To start, I think clinical trials need to be purposefully designed with a plan for inclusion and outreach. For more common diseases where there is data to show that Black men and women are higher risk or have worse outcomes (such as prostate or breast cancer), outreach is essential to educate communities on exactly what it means to be part of a clinical trial and help dispel some of the misconceptions of being part of an ‘experiment.’

Regarding care delivery: implicit bias training is essential. We all have them, and unless we can see them, recognize them, and intentionally act to correct or account for them, those who have long been less visible to our healthcare system will continue to go unnoticed. Accordingly, their health concerns and questions will continue to go unaddressed and unanswered, and consequently, in the world of oncology and cancer care, their diseases are detected at later stages. Additionally, increasing diversity among care providers, such that patients’ doctors look like them or come from a similar background as they do, will also help chip away at care disparities we have today. 

What can scientific and academic institutions do to address disparities in STEM careers, specifically among the Black community?

Dr. Bod:

While there are noticeable efforts in the scientific community to address these disparities, institutions must further create robust mentorship programs, offer targeted scholarships and fellowships, and foster an inclusive culture that actively values diversity. These steps include addressing unconscious biases and making STEM fields more accessible through financial support, outreach, and community engagement. By implementing these strategies, institutions can inspire a diverse new generation in STEM and build a more equitable workforce.

Dr. Ruffin:

Educating young students early about careers in STEM is key. I did not learn about the path to becoming an academic researcher until  my senior year as undergraduate student and I think that my journey would have been smoother if I knew more about what it took to take this path earlier in my career. It is especially important that we recruit and retain Black scientists to academic institutions so that young trainees have mentors that look like them. This requires, in my opinion, programs that provide Black students with research experience and professional development where they learn and prepare for careers in academia and industry. Retention requires creating spaces in academia and industry where Black scientists feel welcomed, supported financially, and are offered leadership positions where they can make an impact.

Dr. Banks:

First, to name the most important disparity I have noticed as I have moved through my career thus far: the drop off in Black students, trainees, and professionals as one rises through the ranks from undergrad through professorship is profound. What is and is not permitted in recruitment is now muddied by the ways in which institutions can consider race in the admissions process and recent limitations placed on them. But perhaps this means we must now focus on retention. How do we retain Black researchers and physicians? Why are they leaving academia and research? What demands are we placing on Black trainees and early career researchers and what support is not being provided alongside that? I do not know if I have the answers to those questions for the entire Black community, but I do keep coming back to this concept of resource and not just mentorship, but sponsorship. Perhaps that is a place to start. Some examples might be: ensuring that Black researchers are negotiating for the same protections and salaries as their peers, or making sure Black researchers have robust mentorship or sponsorship networks lifting them up and giving them opportunities upon which to build the foundations of their career.

Is there anything else you would like to say about your work, cancer disparities, or how to make STEM fields more inclusive?

Dr. Bod:

Inspired by Aimé Césaire’s powerful words “There is room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory,” I am dedicated to building a community that champions equity and inclusivity in academia and beyond. Césaire, a visionary from Martinique and a pioneer in the fight against racism, reminds us of the importance of creating spaces where everyone is welcome. The stark disparities in academia and the STEM fields demand a unified effort to foster diversity at all levels. By working together, we can ensure that everyone, regardless of their background, has a place at the table and, ultimately, shares in the rendezvous of victory.

The scientific community is making great strides in cancer immunotherapy research, and Black immunologists help propel the field forward while being critical voices for addressing patient disparities and increasing representation in STEM careers. CRI would like to thank Drs. Bod, Ruffin, and Banks for their time and input, but especially for helping us create a world immune to cancer.

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