Innovator Spotlight

Q: What prompted the creation of the Cancer Research Institute?
Sixty years ago, our founders believed that the key to controlling cancer would one day be found within our own immune system. This belief stemmed from the pioneering work of the 19th century New York cancer surgeon William B. Coley, M.D., who administered an immune-stimulating "toxin" to patients with inoperable cancers, often seeing their tumors regress as a result.

The science of immunology was still nascent when Coley treated his patients, and though his approach clearly worked well for some patients, the results were often inconsistent, and it was not possible to predict who would or would not respond. Furthermore, no one—not even Coley himself—knew for sure how the toxin worked.

Recognizing the need for basic research into the mechanisms of both the immune system and cancer, the Cancer Research Institute's (CRI) founders set out to create an organization that would fund this crucial work and shape the intellectual development of a field: tumor immunology. CRI has provided financial support for the training and research programs of generations of immunologists and cancer immunologists (more than 3,000 to date). Their studies have produced many of the major insights that have validated the vision of our founders and made possible today's breakthrough immunotherapy treatments.

Q: What were the challenges in cancer research that CRI felt it could address?
When CRI was founded in 1953, chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery dominated the field of cancer treatment and research. These modalities received most of the institutional support of the day, and immune-based therapies were largely ignored. For those scientists interested in exploring the connection between the immune system and cancer, it was difficult—if not impossible—to obtain funding.

CRI provided a lifeline of support to these scientists, enabling them to conduct groundbreaking research that has provided a rich fundamental understanding of the immune system and its relationship to cancer. Through their work, we have gained important insights into immune recognition of cancer that have opened new strategies for therapeutic intervention.

Today, opinion on cancer immunotherapy has shifted, as recent successes in the clinic have prompted many to reconsider immunotherapy's potential; a growing number of cancer biologists and oncologists consider it the greatest immediate hope for cancer patients.

Now that the field is on a firm footing and gaining momentum, we place increasing emphasis on the translation and clinical application of scientific discovery, identifying innovative ways to help bring the most promising immunotherapies to more cancer patients sooner.

Our ultimate goal is to enable the discovery and development of immune-based therapies for all types of cancer that can turn an often fatal disease into one that is completely manageable—a goal we firmly believe is achievable.

Q: Talk about CRI's research strategies and how they overcome the barriers you've identified.
Our first priority was to create a respected scientific advisory board to help guide our funding priorities. Composed of several Nobel laureates and 27 members of the National Academy of Sciences as well as other leading researchers, the Scientific Advisory Council ensures that CRI supports only the highest caliber science. This commitment to scientific excellence is a cornerstone of all our programs, which provide a continuum of support across the entire research spectrum.

On the basic research front is our Irvington Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, which provides financial support to budding cancer immunologists. The research our fellows pursue furthers our knowledge of tumor immunology while simultaneously opening up new avenues for clinical intervention. Our Clinic and Laboratory Integration Program (CLIP) provides a two-way street, where data from the clinic guide the efforts of the lab and vice versa, facilitating the translation of basic science into clinical improvements.

Our Clinical Accelerator is a unique venture philanthropy program that enables an unprecedented research collaboration between biopharmaceutical companies and a network of leading academic clinicians and researchers. Working alongside our partner in this program, Ludwig Cancer Research, CRI works to identify promising new drug combinations, partners with the companies to gain access to these drugs, and then provides investment capital and clinical trial support from Ludwig to help kick start their clinical development.

This model addresses one of the significant roadblocks to immunotherapy development, namely combining complementary agents owned by different companies in an efficient manner, enabling top academic researchers to study the results.

Q: What do you consider CRI's greatest accomplishments to date?
In its 60 years, Cancer Research Institute has succeeded in helping the field of cancer immunology become an established and innovative area of medical research. Our support has funded discoveries that have laid the foundation for the encouraging results patients are achieving from treatment with cancer immunotherapies.

We have created in CRI a nimble, non-bureaucratic organization that draws upon its international network of the best scientific minds to identify where there is need and rapidly develop programs that address them. This ensures the field's ability to move ahead on new opportunities as they arise, which ultimately benefits cancer patients sooner.

Our Clinical Accelerator represents the fulfillment of our organization's ultimate goal to bring life-saving immunotherapies to cancer patients. The program demands global collaboration among researchers in academia and industry, facilitates partnered clinical development by disparate biopharma companies, utilizes a one-of-a-kind clinical infrastructure that took over a decade to assemble, and invests in research-driven (as opposed to product-driven) clinical trials. The Clinical Accelerator overcomes key obstacles to the development of effective immunotherapies that produce durable, cure-like remissions in an increasing number of patients. It provides a neutral, nonprofit space where promising new combination treatments for a variety of cancers can be tested—including ones that otherwise might not be possible. And, as the immunotherapies supported by this program become successful, CRI's Clinical Accelerator can generate substantial financial returns on investment to sustain and even grow the program into the future, ultimately helping more patients.

Q: What are top research goals over the next year, and what will it take to reach these goals?
Through our Clinical Accelerator, each year we plan to support three to five new clinical trials of promising immunotherapy combinations. This will require us to forge new partnerships with biopharmaceutical companies to gain access to their drugs, and potentially to grow the network of clinical trial sites.

Our Clinic and Laboratory Integration Program is in very high demand given the lack of funding for translational research. To meet this demand, we plan to increase the number of CLIP grants we fund. Areas of research interest include uncovering new immunogenic targets using techniques like exome sequencing, identifying new biomarkers to help select the patients who would best respond to immunotherapy, studying ways to manipulate the tumor microenvironment to inhibit tumor growth, and understanding the development of regulatory T cells and their role in limiting the immune response to cancer.

Basic science and training will continue to be a funding priority. We will maintain strong support of our Irvington Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, which empowers the best and brightest young immunologists to answer key questions about the immune system and its interaction with cancer. Research areas of interest include understanding the association between inflammation and the development of tumors, mechanisms of immune suppression, and the contributions of microbiota to the development of cancer.

Expanding and strengthening CRI's commitment to funding the spectrum of scientific discovery will require us to raise additional funds to support more grants and awards.