CRI History

The Era of Cancer Immunotherapy is here. Treatments that mobilize our own immune system to see and eliminate cancer are now part of the standard of care for several of the most common and deadly types of cancer. Immunotherapy has already significantly improved outcomes for millions of cancer patients around the world and promises to help millions more.

Immunotherapy is a new way to treat cancer that is unlike any other. Decades of scientific research on the immune system has made this new approach to cancer treatment possible. At the center of the Immunotherapy Revolution is one determined nonprofit organization with a grand vision of a world immune to cancer: the Cancer Research Institute.

The Cancer Research Institute was founded on January 27, 1953, by Helen Coley Nauts and Oliver R. Grace Sr., two individuals who believed that, together, they could end the devastation of cancer. Their legacy is an organization that established an entire field of cancer research — the field of tumor immunology — that is extending and saving the lives of cancer patients today.   

To appreciate the history of the Institute, however, we should first look back to 1938.

While mourning the death of her father, Dr. William B. Coley — a prominent surgeon who practiced medicine in New York between 1890 and 1936 — Mrs. Nauts began to go through his papers and came to an important realization. Although Dr. Coley had been a noted cancer surgeon, he was also a pioneer in the non-surgical treatment of cancer, an approach that would lead to some of today’s most impactful cancer immunotherapy breakthroughs.

Bacterial Toxins and Treatments

Helen Coley Nauts

Helen Coley Nauts learned that, in the early 1890s, her father, Dr. William B. Coley, had observed that some cancer patients experienced spontaneous remission of their tumors in a considerable number of cases where they contracted acute bacterial infections. Convinced that the disappearance of the tumors was somehow connected with the infections, Dr. Coley took a daring step. He injected live bacteria into a patient with an inoperable malignant tumor to bring about a virulent infection. The patient made a complete recovery, living another 26 years until a heart attack took his life. Dr. Coley went on to develop a safe and effective mixture of bacteria for treating cancer patients, known as Coley’s mixed bacterial toxins. Unfortunately, Dr. Coley’s work was overshadowed by the advent of X-ray and radium treatment and, subsequently, chemotherapy.

Mrs. Nauts became inspired by her father’s work. Recognizing its potential significance, she undertook her own investigations into Coley’s mixed bacterial toxins. A housewife and mother, Mrs. Nauts had no formal medical training, yet she felt compelled to find a way to let people know about her father’s important work. Over the next dozen years, with neither a medical education nor financial backing, Helen taught herself oncology, immunology, and record-keeping to interpret and publish her father’s work. It took her more than three years to finish the monumental task of sorting through his records, which lacked the detailed case histories that were needed to prove the effectiveness of his toxins. She tracked down 896 cases of microscopically confirmed cancers that had been treated with Coley’s mixed bacterial toxins. She published her findings—data compilations so precise that they are still consulted by cancer researchers for clues about the disease—showing that there truly were beneficial effects to her father’s treatment.

The “Father of Cancer Immunotherapy”

William B. Coley, MD

Although the first half of the twentieth century brought great advances in the medical application of the biological sciences, the field of immunology remained a neglected and sparsely populated landscape during these early years. Mrs. Nauts’ groundbreaking work rekindled the medical community’s interest in exploring the link between cancer and the immune system. As a result, the medical community has come to regard Dr. William B. Coley as the “Father of Cancer Immunotherapy.” But Mrs. Nauts’ fight did not end there. She envisioned an organization that would get to the scientific root of her father’s treatment.

Oliver R. Grace Sr.

With a grant of $2,000 from Nelson Rockefeller, Mrs. Nauts and her devoted friend Oliver R. Grace Sr., founded the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) in 1953. Over the following decades, CRI would foster the growing field of cancer immunology and support the people and projects that established immunotherapy as a fourth primary way to treat cancer.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the field of cancer immunology grew rapidly. Mrs. Nauts successfully recruited some of the world’s most prestigious and innovative oncologists and immunologists to serve on the Institute’s Scientific Advisory Council. Prominent among these advisors today include Nobel Laureates and members of the National Academy of Sciences. Mrs. Nauts became the Institute’s founding executive director and served tirelessly in that role until 1982, when she became the Institute’s director of science and medical communications. During that time, her efforts to educate the public and foster scientific discourse within the medical community gave CRI international renown as a clearinghouse for cancer immunotherapy information. She remained actively involved in CRI’s affairs until her death in January 2001, at the age of 93. As a result of Mrs. Nauts’ work and the efforts of those she inspired, cancer immunology now offers one of the most promising approaches to the understanding and control of cancer, while the Institute she founded is now regarded as a pioneer and leader in cancer immunotherapy research.

Expansion and Education

Lloyd Old

Over its 70 years, CRI has undergone several important programmatic evolutions in response to (and often in anticipation of) developments in the field of cancer immunology. The first of these began in 1971, when CRI appointed Lloyd J. Old, MD, a prominent cancer immunologist, to be its medical director. Old set out at once to expand CRI’s programmatic scope, bringing many of the world’s most distinguished immunologists to join CRI’s Scientific Advisory Council, a guiding body whose membership gave it unimpeachable authority. Old realized that to understand the principles underlying Coley’s work, investment in basic immunology research was of paramount priority.

Recruiting and Training Scientific Talent

In 1971, CRI established its Postdoctoral Fellowship Program to attract outstanding young scientists to immunology and train them in the best labs under the tutelage of skilled mentors. This investment in the field grew an increasing population of cancer immunologists needing funding at more advanced stages of their careers. To meet this need, the Institute established in 1986 as a complement to its postdoctoral fellowships its Investigator Award Program, which provided funding to tenure track assistant professors who are making their first forays into independent research—a challenging period that can determine the course of a career for years to come.

CRI’s decades of investments in immunology paid significant dividends in the 1990s. Armed with deeper knowledge of the immune system’s basic workings, scientists were able to create techniques for identifying cancer antigens suitable for testing in vaccines. They learned how to construct many types of vaccines to deliver a given antigen and developed methods to precisely monitor the results.

As discoveries began to migrate from the laboratory bench to the clinic, CRI adapted yet again to provide funding for those investigators who were carrying out avant-garde research by creating a Clinical Investigation Program that supported preclinical studies and clinical trials testing new immunotherapies against cancer. CRI also added another program, its Student Training and Research in Tumor Immunology (STaRT), a training program to support graduate students planning to pursue a career in cancer immunology.

Meanwhile, to establish a more formal network of cancer immunology’s international talent base, the Institute initiated in 1994 its Annual International Cancer Immunotherapy Symposium. These annual meetings convened hundreds of researchers from dozens of countries and bring them up to the minute on progress in the field. In 2015, CRI along with three other cancer research organizations, merged their immunotherapy meetings together to become a single reference meeting for the entire field. The CRI-ENCI-AACR International Cancer Immunotherapy Conference (formerly the CRI-CIMT-EATI-AACR International Cancer Immunotherapy Conference before the merger of our European partners) alternates annually between locations in the United States and Europe and attracts immunologists and tumor immunologists from around the world.

Fostering Global Collaboration

It became apparent that many research centers were working toward common goals, but the lack of communication and teamwork among them was proving a hindrance to the advancement of the field. Research often consists of stand-alone projects that follow their own guidelines. Results are hard to compare and learn from, and proprietary interests often get in the way of sharing those results. To counter this inertia and accelerate discovery, CRI’s Scientific Advisory Council posed the idea that the Institute should develop further its unique powers as a convening agent by coordinating research efforts across international boundaries.

The collaborative research model was the result of this effort. This model brings together the best researchers from different institutions and focuses them on the most promising topics. With the implementation of standardized methods for monitoring and data reporting in a free and open forum, CRI facilitated a more efficient approach to discovery that maximizes each participating institution’s intellectual, financial, and physical resources.

Beginning in 1999, the model was first employed in what is now called the Cancer Antigen Discovery Collaborative (CADC), dedicated to identifying antigens in colon, breast, and prostate cancer. As CRI entered the new millennium, the proven model was applied to tests of vaccines on actual patients, through its Cancer Vaccine Collaborative (CVC). Developed jointly with the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, the CVC unites a growing number of researchers in a worldwide quest that should ultimately uncover the basics of effective cancer immunization. From 2001 to 2011, the CADC and the CVC comprised the two arms of the Clinical Investigation Program that originally began in the 1990s.

Increased Efficiency Through Consolidation

In late 2007, the Irvington Institute for Immunological Research merged with the Cancer Research Institute, combining its postdoctoral fellowship program with CRI’s. During the more than 90 years of its existence, the Irvington Institute established itself as a leading source of postdoctoral fellowship funding for research on immunology and diseases associated with the immune system, including AIDS, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other immune system disorders. The merger consolidated the resources of both organizations, with CRI assuming leadership of the combined program, renamed the CRI Irvington Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. As a result of the merger, the Cancer Research Institute was able to grow by 25 percent the number of fellows it funds each year. In the increasingly competitive environment of academic research funding, CRI’s ability to fund additional fellowship awards helps to secure the future of immunological and cancer immunological research.

The following year, the Cancer Vaccine Consortium of the Sabin Vaccine Institute came under the Cancer Research Institute fold. This association of biotech and pharma companies, as well as academic institutions engaged in cancer immunotherapy development, extended the scope of CRI’s impact beyond academic research and early clinical discovery—now covering later-phase clinical development typically led by industry. In 2010, the association renamed itself the Cancer Immunotherapy Consortium to better reflect the group’s mission to advance the development of all cancer immunotherapies beyond just vaccines, and in 2015, further refined its scope to function as a “think-tank” devoted to addressing primarily industry-facing issues related to immunotherapy drug development.

Innovation and Transition

In 2010, CRI took an important strategic step forward in realizing its mission to conquer cancer through immunotherapy with the launch of the Cancer Vaccine Acceleration Fund. The Fund was an innovative model for philanthropic investment in early-stage clinical development of promising cancer immunotherapies that had been prioritized by our scientific leadership based on their potential to revolutionize cancer treatment in the near term. The Fund empowered the clinical trials infrastructure built jointly by CRI and its partner the Ludwig Institute and obtained access to industry-controlled drugs for use in CRI/Ludwig Cancer Vaccine Collaborative (CVC) clinical trials. In 2012, CRI rolled the CVC and the Fund into a single program called the Anna-Maria Kellen Clinical Accelerator and Venture Fund. The Clinical Accelerator has established collaborative relationships across academia and industry, gaining access to highly promising immunotherapies and designing clinical trials testing novel treatment combinations. These trials not only answer important scientific questions aimed at improving immunotherapy’s effectiveness in more types of cancer, but they also give patients the opportunity to receive cutting-edge cancer treatment.

2011 saw other historic transitions at CRI with the retirement in June of our founding scientific and medical director, Lloyd J. Old, MD, as director of the CRI/Ludwig Cancer Vaccine Collaborative, and in August as director of the CRI Scientific Advisory Council. Sadly, Dr. Old passed away in November of that year. CRI established the endowed Lloyd J. Old Memorial Fellowship Fund, and in 2012 began to co-fund with the American Association for Cancer Research the annual Lloyd J. Old Award in Cancer Immunology.

At the helm of CRI’s scientific leadership today are two highly distinguished cancer immunologists who both worked closely with Dr. Old and who have been members of the CRI community for many years. In June 2011, CRI named James P. Allison, PhD, director of the Scientific Advisory Council, and named Jedd D. Wolchok, MD, PhD, director of the CRI Clinical Trials Network. The combined clinical and laboratory expertise of Allison and Wolchok ensures CRI has a solid foundation as more promising cancer immunotherapies make the transition from laboratory to the clinic and beyond.

Reaching Patients and Caregivers

As cancer immunotherapy becomes increasingly available as a treatment option for patients, the need grows to provide trusted, easy-to-understand information to patients and caregivers who are trying to make sense of this new approach to cancer treatment. In 2014, the Cancer Research Institute launched a new website devoted to patients and caregivers called TheAnswerToCancer.org. The site offered information about immunotherapy for many kinds of cancer, features stories from patients who have received immunotherapy treatment, connects users to others willing to answer questions about their personal experiences with immunotherapy, and helps patients and caregivers locate immunotherapy clinical trials. In 2017, CRI incorporated the site into cancerresearch.org, integrating information pages for patients and caregivers with a clinical trial finder, personal testimonials of patients treated with immunotherapy, and access to CRI’s other research and educational programs and resources.

People x Biology x Data

As technology advances, so too does the pace of discovery. Harnessing the vast stores of data being generated by today’s sophisticated laboratory and clinical studies is a critical step toward cancer cures. In 2022, CRI announced new initiatives including a postdoctoral fellowship and intensives designed to train the next generation of tumor immunologists in data science and bioinformatics — building essential skills for the science of the future.

The Path Forward

Today, virtually every major research institution in the world working in immunology and immunotherapy has scientists on staff who have been or are currently being funded by CRI, with fresh talent on the way. The journey begun by Dr. Coley isn’t over. CRI will continue to be a pioneer and leader in bringing immunotherapies to more cancer patients by:

  • seeking innovative partnerships with biotech and pharmaceutical companies that are developing promising immunotherapies in their drug pipelines
  • collaborating with disease-specific cancer charities seeking to extend their research portfolio into clinical immunology
  • funding basic science and training future generations of scientists
  • educating patients and caregivers about their immunotherapy treatment options and encouraging them to advance research through participation in clinical trials.

Researchers are confident that, in the foreseeable future, doctors will have a wide range of immunotherapies as a front-line defense against cancer—improving the effectiveness of today’s standard, non-immunological approaches.

With your help, we can reach this revolutionary milestone sooner, bringing lifesaving treatments to more people in need.

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