Immunotherapy Scientist Stories

Hyam I. Levitsky, MD

Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, MD

Bridging the Academic-Industry Divide

On September 1, 2011, Hyam I. Levitsky, MD, a member of the executive committee of the CRI Cancer Immunotherapy Consortium, was named head of cancer immunology experimental medicine at Roche, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. With the position, Dr. Levitsky will also retain his laboratory and academic appointment at The Johns Hopkins University, a novel arrangement that he hopes will give him a unique platform to advance the development of new cancer immunotherapeutics.

We spoke with Dr. Levitsky about his new position and the opportunity to bring new treatments to cancer patients sooner. 

What’s new about this position?

Dr. Levitsky: This is the first time that Roche has formally established a cancer immunology and immunotherapy research and development program within its structure. It’s a signal that they’re committed to growing this area of research, and that they see the potential it has to help patients. This opportunity also reflects a larger trend among biotechs and pharmaceutical companies—it used to be that commercial entities wouldn’t take a call from an immunologist, and now our email inboxes are full each day with requests from them.

How does immunotherapy fit within Roche’s overall research and development program?

Dr. Levitsky: Other sections under the Oncology Discovery and Translation Area (DTA) focus on anti-angiogenesis, small molecule inhibitors of the p53 pathway, apoptosis, signal transduction, and the tumor microenvironment. There’s a lot of collaboration and cross-disciplinary communication between the groups. From a biological perspective, these strategies are not distinctly separate from one another; they co-exist within the larger biological system, so they’re not taken as completely separate from an organizational perspective at Roche. In terms of where cancer immunology and immunotherapy falls in the mix, it’s definitely a growth sector.

Roche’s investment in anti-tumor immune response technology?

Dr. Levitsky: My organization within Roche, Pharma Research and Early Development (pRED), has invested in antibody engineering, not only for use of monoclonal antibodies in the established ways of delivering cell-killing agents to tumors or interrupting cell signaling pathways, but also as ways to engage and manipulate the immune system’s response to tumors.

Roche has a team in Schlieren, Switzerland, that can rapidly create and select monoclonal antibodies of any specificity (including multiple specificities), adjust for affinity, half life, extent of Fc receptor binding, etc. These tools enable an unprecedented level of control over the tumor microenvironment and the local host immune response. Our imaginations are now the major limitation to what can be done. Everything is on the table right now on how to exploit this for anti-cancer therapy, including targeting and manipulation of the tumor vasculature and stroma, as well as sending in tumor-targeting monoclonal antibodies that deliver immune signals like cytokines, chemokines, or neutralization of inhibitory molecules.

Another major investment is Roche’s partnership with the “Netherlands Hub,” an in vivo imaging consortium of academic and commercial interests driving the science of imaging technology to characterize the immune response in living patients versus biopsies and blood samples. The advances in imaging technologies could be a game changer for the field.

Where does Roche stand in terms of cancer vaccine development?

Dr. Levitsky: Roche currently doesn’t have a strong focus on cancer vaccines, and that will be one of the areas of growth for us. Vaccinology is relevant to oncology, virology, and inflammatory diseases, and these disciplines overlap in several distinct areas (e.g., HPV, EBV, HCV, chronic infection, tolerance, immune exhaustion, etc.), so we will strengthen our ongoing collaborations with the virology and inflammation DTAs.

How is this new position helping to facilitate academic/industry partnership?

Dr. Levitsky: It is important to Roche to have a prominent academic lead the effort; collaborations with academic institutions will form an important element in Roche’s research and development strategy. I’ll maintain my position at Johns Hopkins. While it’s going to be challenging to manage a full-time industry job while maintaining my academic activities, it’s necessary to best leverage the strengths both bring to bear.

These collaborations are an efficient way to tap into appropriate expertise, get exposed to great research and new knowledge, and access the support that big pharma can provide. I’ve already begun talking with leaders from multiple academic centers of excellence about setting up these kinds of partnerships with Roche. There used to be deal-breaking roadblocks around such things as conflict of interest, nondisclosure and confidentiality, and intellectual property, but now academic and commercial entities understand that it is in our mutual interest to work together, so we are finding ways to manage these obstacles.

We all agree we have to figure out just how to do it, and a lot of people have put a great deal of thought into navigating these complicated areas to make sure it is done with the highest ethical and legal standards. Roche is international, so I get to see how these relationships work in different countries, and so we’re all learning from one another.

Originally published October 26, 2011.

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