Dr. Lawrence Fong to lead Immunotherapy Integrated Research Center

International expert will help scale up Fred Hutch’s clinical expertise in solid tumor immunotherapy
Dr. Lawrence Fong
Dr. Lawrence Fong studies the strategies solid tumors use to resist immunotherapy. He will lead efforts to scale up Fred Hutch's solid tumor immunotherapy research. Photo courtesy of ASCO/Todd Buchanan

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center announced the hiring of Lawrence Fong, MD, as the scientific director of the Immunotherapy Integrated Research Center (IIRC). He will begin his new role July 1, 2024.

Fong is the Efim Guzik Distinguished Professor in Cancer Biology at the University of California, San Francisco, where he founded and leads the Cancer Immunotherapy Program. He also co-directs the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at UCSF and co-leads the Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Program in the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

As a medical oncologist in the UCSF Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology/Oncology, he has been involved with both the pre-clinical and clinical development of multiple immunotherapies including immune checkpoint inhibitors that are now FDA approved. In 2021, he received a National Cancer Institute Outstanding Investigator Award, which provides $4.2 million over seven years for his project, “Determinants of Response to Cancer Immunotherapy.”

Offering immunotherapy at scale

For Fong, a genitourinary oncologist and expert in immunotherapy for solid tumors, the IIRC leadership role means a welcome return to Seattle. After graduating from Stanford University School of Medicine, he completed his internship and residency in internal medicine at the University of Washington, which included involvement with Fred Hutch’s clinical research in bone marrow transplantation. He then returned to Stanford for an oncology fellowship and joined the UCSF faculty in 2001.

Observing Fred Hutch staff conduct research in a clinical context opened his mind to what was possible, he said, and laid the groundwork for his dedication to investigating how immunotherapies work in patients.

“At the beginning of my career, cancer immunotherapy was not a popular idea. I had prominent professors tell me that immunotherapy for solid tumors was never going to work. Part of what drove me was my experience at Fred Hutch, seeing the importance of studying the immune system in patients,” Fong said.

“Now, we’re at a point in immunotherapy where we have enormous successes to build on and we really need to think about doing this work at scale — not for a small number of patients but for hundreds of patients.

“Fred Hutch is one of the few places in the world that has the capacity to do that, as well as the vision, resources and commitment. To have watched the organization grow since I was first at UW has just been staggering.”

A huge opportunity to improve outcomes

Among the pressing questions for the IIRC are why some patients respond to immunotherapies while others don’t and how doctors can convert the latter to respond, said Fong.

The ability to meld lab research and clinical research is crucial to finding answers. Such work could broaden the use of immunotherapy to many more people with many more types of cancer and produce more durable responses. Already, an integrated approach has allowed researchers like Fong to better understand which immune cells actually kill cancer and which mechanisms prevent immunotherapies from working in some cases.

“Resistance to treatment is an issue with other forms of therapy for cancer, but there’s an added level of complexity in immunotherapy: It’s not just a drug working on a cancer cell; it’s a drug working on the immune system that then has to work on cancer cell,” said Fong.

Overcoming resistance represents a huge opportunity to have an effect on solid tumors, as well as to improve approaches that have worked for hematologic malignancies. Fong and Fred Hutch share a goal to meet this opportunity with innovative science and to quickly translate discoveries into better clinical outcomes.

“Recruiting Dr. Fong, a distinguished scholar supported by the Bezos family’s transformative gift that was announced last year, is a significant milestone for our organization,” said Geoffrey Hill, MD, FRACP, FRCPA, who will hand off leadership of the IIRC to him.

“In addition to his solid tumor expertise, which is an area we are strategically working to grow, his laboratory program has made significant contributions in understanding how immunotherapies work in patients and in identifying mechanisms of resistance that can be targeted with next generation approaches.”

Hill is senior vice president and director of the Translational Science and Therapeutics Division, where Fong will be a full professor. In addition, Fong will have an appointment in the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutch, and he will be a professor in the University of Washington Department of Medicine.

“Dr. Fong’s depth and breadth in understanding the biology of immune therapies and phenomenal clinical experience in caring for patients make him ideally suited to help expand Fred Hutch’s clinical trials program in cancer immunotherapies, “ said Sara Hurvitz, MD, FACP, the senior vice president and director of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutch and professor and head of the Division of Hematology and Oncology in the University of Washington Department of Medicine.

“Fred Hutch has a historic legacy of developing transplantation to cure blood-based diseases, and now we’re building on that legacy,” Hurvitz said. “By joining Fred Hutch, Dr. Fong will help lead our efforts to make existing immunotherapies more effective for more patients and to develop new immune approaches to treat cancers, including breast, lung and prostate.”

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