Dr. Phil Greenberg becomes president-elect of American Association for Cancer Research

Immunologist looks ahead to international leadership role
Dr. Philip Greenberg
Renowned T-cell researcher Dr. Philip D. Greenberg, head of the Immunology Program at Fred Hutch, begins a three-year stint on the board of the American Association for Cancer Research, which he will head as president in 2023. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center immunologist Dr. Philip Greenberg has begun a year-long term as president-elect of the American Association for Cancer Research, setting the stage for him to lead the organization as president in 2023.

Founded by doctors and scientists in 1907, AACR is the world’s largest peer organization of cancer researchers, with more than 50,000 members from 129 countries. His term begins today during the group’s annual meeting in New Orleans.

“I am incredibly appreciative that the membership would select me to have this opportunity, and I hope to live up to the trust that I’ve been given,” Greenberg said, prior to traveling to the gathering.

Greenberg is the second Fred Hutch luminary to serve in the leadership of AACR. Dr. Nancy Davidson, executive vice president for clinical affairs and senior vice president and director of the Clinical Research Division, was AACR president for the 2016-2017 term. She holds the Raisbeck Endowed Chair for Collaborative Research. 

After joining Fred Hutch in 1976, only a year after the Seattle research center opened its doors, Greenberg has played pivotal roles in understanding how the human immune system can be harnessed to eliminate cancer. Holder of The Rona Jaffe Foundation Endowed Chair, he is an internationally recognized expert in T cells, infection-fighting blood cells that can be reprogrammed to target cancers even more effectively.

“Immunotherapy as a treatment strategy is exploding,” he said. “The trajectory since the start of the millennium has been just remarkable. What we are doing is engineering cells to create an immune response that never existed. … We could not have dreamed of doing many of these things a decade ago — and we were dreamers 10 years ago. They were different dreams then, and they’re getting better.”

Greenberg will have to squeeze in his new leadership role with his work as a bench scientist, professor and head of the Hutch’s Program in Immunology.

At the top of his list: a 'Bio-Hub'

As AACR president-elect, he will sit on the board of directors for the next three years, serving first as president-elect, then as president, and finally as immediate past president. He will use this period to shape the organization’s policy and advocacy work, pushing for several initiatives close to his heart.

At the top of his list is for AACR to develop or support development of what he called a “Bio-Hub” that would make it easier for scientists at smaller institutions to access the advanced technologies that are driving the latest breakthroughs in cancer research.

“Those of us at wonderful centers like Fred Hutch generally get access to new technologies relatively quickly, but it is hard for any individual institution to keep pace with new developments. A Bio-Hub would allow people to have access to validated technologies so that all labs, in more places, can essentially move more quickly,” he said.

Wider access to technologies would also expand access for patients to the medical advances that flow from research, and Greenberg said another top priority for him is to promote diversity and inclusion in training, research and access to care.

'We want to be part of the solution'

“The problem we have in academic research is that we’ve been very ineffective at recruiting and engaging minorities. It’s unfortunate, but I’d say it’s something the vast majority of us have never paid adequate attention to,” he said. “The events of the last few years have made a lot of us wake up and look into the mirror and say, ‘Am I part of the solution or part of the problem?’ And the answer is that, whatever we think we were, we want to be part of the solution.”

In the same way, he said, the research community has an obligation to ensure that the advantages that come from participation in clinical trials should be available to minority groups.

“Underlying this is a trust issue,” he said. “For painfully good reasons, these populations are not very trustful of scientific institutions, and we need to change that.”

The lack of trust in science is not limited to minority communities, which is underscored by the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have to assume that’s our failure, that we’ve not communicated adequately,” Greenberg said. “One of the things I’m talking with AACR about is to find ways we can communicate more effectively and create programs to train research academicians to do so.”

A return to in-person meetings

Greenberg will be assuming a leadership role at a time when everyone is hoping that the world is emerging from the pandemic. COVID-19 disrupted cancer research efforts, and understandably made immunocompromised patients more reluctant to participate in trials that require multiple visits to medical centers.

“I think the research community performed admirably during the pandemic,” he said. He noted that, for safety reasons, there were times when only two or three people could work in labs. Experiments with mice were curtailed, and many cancer researchers appropriately turned their skills and attention to the desperate work of finding ways to prevent and treat COVID-19.

During the years ahead in leadership roles at AACR, Greenberg said he looks forward to the return of in-person academic conferences, such as the current annual meeting.

Personal interaction with other scientists, he said, provides important feedback. It generates excitement and new ideas. The Zoom culture of the past two years does not allow presenters at scientific meeting to read the audience, to sense whether their ideas are getting through. He observed that, like most people, scientists thrive on social contact.

“It is something I think all of us in science have greatly missed,” he said.

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Read more about Fred Hutch achievements and accolades.

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