2020 presented many challenges to the world including pandemic-related slowdowns in cancer research, new complications for cancer patients seeking treatment, and heightened attention on racial health equity. Despite these obstacles the Cancer Research Institute and the greater immuno-oncology field it supports stayed the course, adapting and evolving as the pandemic dictated. We sat down with CRI CEO and Director of Scientific Affairs Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, Ph.D., to get her perspective on how the organization as well as cancer research and treatment are advancing amid the ongoing global health crisis.
CRI and the pandemic
I think CRI and our staff have fared remarkably well. Our office transitioned to an all-virtual workplace within days of NYC being shut down last March. We have delivered and executed on all our planned activities, adapting as needed, and we are carrying out all our operations. My staff and I miss personal interaction and the spontaneous chats that occur around the office, but all in all we have worked hard to remain connected with more frequent staff meetings. We also strive to make some of these Zoom gatherings a bit more fun and not all business.
When it comes to fundraising, I was very worried. CRI raises its operating budget each year, so meeting our fundraising goals is critical for us to carry out our programs and our mission. Except for in-person events, which luckily CRI does not depend upon as significantly as do some charities, we are on track to meet or exceed our target this year. But we are only partly through the fiscal year, so the next few months and the success of our spring fundraising campaign will tell the true tale. Hopefully, we will continue having the success we have had in the first two quarters, which was made possible by not only the staff’s flexibility and creativity, but also by the generous support our donors have provided throughout this.
The impact of COVID vaccines on CRI and cancer patients
I am very optimistic about the vaccines that have received approval for emergency use. The speed at which they were created and their apparent effectiveness are a real testament to the power of science and its importance in addressing global health crises. We have all been waiting for the protection a vaccine offers. While it will take time for most people to be vaccinated, I am hopeful that the CRI staff will be vaccinated by the summer. This will mean deciding on what the new normal of business operations will be for us.
Vaccines also mean that laboratory and clinical research can get back on track with conducting wet lab experiments and delivering discoveries. And cancer patients who many times are immunocompromised and at higher risk for COVID can hopefully breathe a little more easily.
CRI in addressing diversity and racial inequity
In the past year, we have continued to work toward increasing the diversity of the researchers that CRI supports through its grant programs. We have redoubled our efforts to ensure that our Requests for Applications are distributed to a wider network of universities, medical schools, and professional organizations that have historically represented Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color. At the suggestion of the president of the American Association of Immunologists, we have expanded our reach to include the heads of all NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers. It is our understanding that these organizations are charged with outreach to other local institutions, thereby helping cast a wider net for CRI.
This year we are also making efforts to increase diversity, inclusion, and equity in our review process. Toward this goal, we have adopted the following statement to address the topic of implicit bias in the peer review process and will distribute this statement during all stages of grant review:
As an institution, the Cancer Research Institute seeks to promote gender equity and increase diversity, in all its forms, throughout its programs. Studies have demonstrated that often subtle, unconscious, and implicit biases exist in academic science, which have the potential to negatively impact outcomes in review processes. To that end, please be aware of potential implicit biases when reviewing, scoring, and discussing candidates and applications throughout the review process so that we can work together to combat their potential negative impact.
We have been working to create a menu of new programs to promote health equity and advance diversity in the scientific community of immunology. In the past few months, health equity and diversity have become the top priority for philanthropic support from pharmaceutical companies. Our menu of funding opportunities includes designated support for Black and Hispanic postdoctoral fellowships, Spanish-language translation of CRI web pages and patient education resources, a Spanish-language Immunotherapy Patient Summit, and other exciting initiatives currently in development.
We have also partnered with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) to fund their Research Technician Pipeline Program (ResTeP): Recruiting, Training, and Mentoring the Next Generation of Researchers in Translational Cancer Research. ResTeP aims to create opportunities for underrepresented minority undergraduate students who intend to take a gap year before applying to a graduate program. This is a truly unique program at MSK specifically focused on the development of research technicians as an entry point to academic research.
CRI’s continued efforts against cancer
As a scientist, I see the entire arc of discovery as important for CRI if we are to achieve our vision of a Future Immune to Cancer. That means we must continue to support basic laboratory discovery on the immune system. Such discovery may appear to be far from patient benefit, but it provides the foundation for the development of new immunotherapies. If we do not understand the biology of how the immune system works and how it interacts with cancer, we are shooting in the dark when we try to develop new therapies. So, I remain excited about our CRI Irvington Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, Lloyd J. Old STAR Program, and Clinic and Laboratory Integration Program. Closer to patient benefit, our Anna-Maria Kellen Clinical Accelerator focuses on hard-to-treat cancers and brings science-driven immunotherapy combinations into the clinic, where we learn from every patient and every success and failure. This is high-risk/high-reward clinical discovery that our model uniquely makes possible.
In terms of specific areas of research that CRI is supporting, our focus is on learning how to make more patients respond to immunotherapy. The most effective treatment strategies will not be one-size-fits-all, but rather a more personalized approach. We need to understand what is happening in the tumor microenvironment, we need to look not only at T cells, but also other cells of the immune system and understand the dynamic interplay that takes place among these cells and the cancer cells. We need to find a set of biomarkers that will identify in a given patient what cocktail of drugs they need to ensure their immune system can effectively see, identify, and destroy their particular cancer.
The role of CRI supporters
Without our generous donors, CRI cannot do what it does. The way they can be most helpful is to donate to CRI. Beyond that, it is also important that more people know what we do and what we have accomplished and understand why we receive top ratings from charity watchdog organizations. Our supporters can also spread the word and help increase awareness of CRI among more people so that our pool of donors and the lifesaving research programs they fuel can continue to grow.
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Photo by Jordan Madrid on Unsplash