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Promise and Progress - Harnessing the Power of the Immune System

Promise & Progress: Special Issue Bloomberg - Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy
Issue No. 2016

Harnessing the Power of the Immune System

Date: March 23, 2016

Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center's Immunology Team

We have always believed that if we could harness the power of the immune system, no cancer could survive. Our scientists have been in the forefront of the field, conducting research aimed at figuring out how and why the immune system is diverted from attacking cancer cells. For more than three decades, the Kimmel Cancer Center has played a key role in advancing this science with world-renowned immunology experts like Drew Pardoll, Elizabeth Jaffee, Charles Drake, Jonathan Powell, and Suzanne Topalian leading the way. Much like the cancer cell, the immune cell and system have proven to be extraordinarily complex, but our experts have demonstrated that they are up to the challenge.

Our expertise in cancer immunology, genetics, and epigenetics, which thrives in an environment of collaboration, has been key to making progress. It has resulted in new findings that have been transferred to patient care with unprecedented speed. Checkpoint blockades—which block signals cancer cells use to neutralize the immune system—have resulted in remarkable and lasting responses in patients with melanoma and lung cancer, and are now being explored in other cancers.

Cancer vaccines that recruit large numbers of immune cells have made our center the leader in the research and treatment of pancreatic cancer, one of the most lethal forms of cancer. New discoveries about the signals that cancer cells send to avert an immune attack promises to improve the effectiveness of these vaccines and allow us to tailor them to many types of cancer.

Epigenetic-targeted therapies that prime immune responses to cancer and a genetic biomarker are also among some of our innovative approaches. Many of these findings are the product of investigator-initiated research and so clearly demonstrate the value of collaborative, integrative science. I would argue that no place does it better than the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, and it is evidenced by our success.

Helping us identify which patients’ cancers are wired to react to immune therapies and which ones need help to respond, makes it possible to get immune therapies to the right patients sooner and, as important, advances the science that will allow us to convert many of the cancers that currently do not respond to cancers that do respond.

Many of these breakthroughs were funded entirely, and all of them relied at least in part, on private support. At this critical time, when the Kimmel Cancer Center’s cancer immune therapies are having unprecedented success, two Johns Hopkins champions have once more answered the challenge and are providing essential funding to help ensure we realize the full potential of the immune system’s ability to fight cancer. Our own benefactor, Sidney Kimmel, who help lay the foundation upon which our success is built, and former New York Mayor, and a leading Johns Hopkins supporter, Michael Bloomberg are each contributing $50 million over the next five years to establish the Bloomberg Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunology. The Hodson Trust, which has helped fund many vital research projects at the Kimmel Cancer Center, is contributing an additional $25 million.

Of course, there are many others that have paved the way for this latest endeavor. The Commonwealth Foundation, the Skip Viragh Foundation, Stand Up To Cancer, Swim Across America, and so many other organizations and individuals, as you will read, have gotten us here.

This support comes at a vital time. Laboratory and clinical research ensures that we will unravel the intertwined biology of the cancer cell, the immune cell, and the cells that surround the tumor so that we can begin to harness the power of the immune system for all cancer patients. Throughout my career as a clinician and scientist and now as cancer center director, I cannot recall another time when so many opportunities were within our grasp. For decades cancer experts have sought this moment—when the immune system could precisely and predictably be recruited to fight cancer universally across all cancer types. The success of immune therapies is real, but the full promise cannot be realized without continued research.  We have the talent and the technology, and I believe this is our time.


William G. Nelson, M.D., Ph.D.

Marion I. Knott Professor and Director

The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins