This past weekend, researchers from around the world gathered at the 33rd annual meeting of the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer, or SITC, in Washington, D.C. On the minds of everyone there was one main question: How can we effectively and safely direct the killing powers of the immune system to cure cancers?
That’s a question scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have been working to answer for years. At the meeting, three of them were honored for their work on cancer immunotherapies.
Dr. Phil Greenberg, who heads the Hutch’s program in immunology, was awarded SITC’s highest honor, the Richard V. Smalley, M.D., Memorial Award and Lectureship — the first Fred Hutch scientist to receive the prize. Decades ago, Greenberg’s team at Fred Hutch made foundational discoveries about how immune cells called T cells could target cancer and other diseases. He continues to pioneer innovative T-cell therapies against leukemia and solid tumors like pancreatic and ovarian cancers, and he is recognized worldwide for his leadership in the field.
In his lecture, delivered on Saturday, Greenberg gave a whirlwind tour of his career developing engineered T-cell therapies for cancer, from its genesis in Fred Hutch’s pioneering research in bone marrow transplantation to his team’s latest results from a clinical trial of T-cell therapy for patients with acute myeloid leukemia and their plans for T-cell therapies in solid tumors.
“We’re just at the beginning of this,” Greenberg said in a recent interview about cancer immunotherapy. “And I think it’s absolutely certain that these are all going to be strategies that get better.”
On Saturday, Greenberg Lab scientist Dr. Kristin Anderson was named the winner of the SITC Presidential Award, which recognizes a young scientist with the most outstanding talk at the annual meeting. Anderson was among four finalists for the award, which was “truly an honor,” she said.
"It was such a privilege to share the podium with the brilliant scientists and physicians who laid the groundwork for the field of immuno-oncology and the talented researchers continuing to drive the field forward,” Anderson said. “I am grateful for the amazing opportunity to share our work.”
In her winning talk on Saturday, Anderson presented her latest work to overcome ovarian cancer’s pernicious ability to shut down attacking T cells. The strategy, which is still in lab tests, involves genetically rewiring immune cells to deliberately misinterpret death signals sent by cancer cells. The idea is that when the cancer cells tell the immune cells to die, the rewired immune cells hear “go!” instead. That is, not only do they not die as commanded, they actually ramp up their cancer-killing activity.
Anderson’s tests so far in lab-grown cells and in mice with ovarian cancer are encouraging: The special T cells seem to be working as designed, and even helping the mice who received them live longer. The team is getting important clues to improve the next versions of the strategy, too.
"We are pushing past the first step of making T cells recognize tumors more efficiently,” Anderson said. “Now we are engineering the next generation of immunotherapy tools that will hopefully drive the field forward, dramatically improve the efficacy of adoptive T-cell therapy, and result in substantial benefit for patients."
Dr. Kelly Paulson was honored on Saturday with the SITC-Merck Cancer Immunotherapy Clinical Fellowship Award. This competitive grant award provides the early career Hutch scientist with one year of critical support for her research to develop T-cell therapies for the rare skin cancer known as Merkel cell carcinoma, working with Drs. Greenberg and Aude Chapuis.
“I am really excited for this award, which will give us new opportunities to use single-cell RNA sequencing approaches to determine the best combination immunotherapies for MCC,” Paulson said. Single-cell RNA sequencing refers to a cutting-edge method that gives researchers a window into the activities of every individual cell in a sample containing thousands of different cells.
Susan Keown is an associate editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sejkeown.