A number of exciting programs at leading companies and research institutions have emerged exploring the potential of immuno-oncology. In March, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore announced the inception of its Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, which purportedly embraces the “moonshot” of the Obama administration to cure cancer. The center is funded by two $50 million gifts, one from Sidney Kimmel and one from Michael R. Bloomberg, and an additional $25 million contributed by more than a dozen other supporters. Vice President Joe Biden, who spearheaded the “moonshot” initiative, joined Bloomberg and other supporters to announce the new institute.
During the announcement, Johns Hopkins cancer researchers explained that immunotherapy is one of the most promising avenues of modern cancer research, with the potential to control or even cure some of the most treatment-resistant cancers. The gifts that fueled the opening of the new institute are expected to accelerate the pace of immuno-oncology discoveries at one of the world’s leading medical research facilities. The Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center has already proven a leader in cancer immunology through a program that involves more than 100 clinicians and scientists in related fields.
The Institute’s Strategic Plan for Immunotherapy Research
The majority of the funding provided to the new institute will support research efforts, but certain funds will be set aside to recruit new scientists and build stronger relationships with key biotech and pharma firms, as well as other major players in the private sector. In addition, Johns Hopkins will invest in important technology development, such as purchasing better methods for profiling the immune response inside of a tumor, and in more infrastructure for engineering cellular products that can be used in cancer immunotherapy. Johns Hopkins plans to focus mainly on breast, urologic, colon, pancreatic, lung, and ovarian cancers, as well as melanoma.
The inaugural director of the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute, Dr. Drew Pardoll, believes that collaborative research will advance immunotherapies to the point that they will bolster the immune system to beat virtually all cancers. As he explains, immuno-oncology has shown great promise in treating some of the most treatment-resistant forms of the disease. Dr. Pardoll has more than two decades of scientific research experience and has worked specifically in the intersection of oncology and immunology. His name is associated with advancements that relate to two specific types of T cells and a certain dendritic cell that acts as an immune system messenger. The institute’s co-directors include Jonathan Powell, Suzanne Topalian, Elizabeth Jaffee, and Charles Drake.
Immuno-Oncology Breakthrough at Johns Hopkins
Johns Hopkins has a strong history in immuno-oncology research. In terms of melanoma, researchers at the university have done a lot of work to determine how cancer cells have been able to evade natural immune defenses. These researchers are looking into different methods for training immune cells to recognize and destroy cancer cells. Much of the institution’s research has focused on anti-PD-1 and anti-PD-L1 therapies and how they can treat advanced melanoma. Rather than killing cancer cells directly, these therapies block the pathway that keeps tumor cells protected from the immune system. Hopkins investigators were actually the first researchers to identify an additional protein involved in this pathway called programmed death ligand-2 (PD-L2).
Outside of these therapies, Johns Hopkins has also proven a leader in the development of cancer vaccines, which are largely linked to the institution’s research on genetic links to immune behavior and cancer development. When combined with other therapies, vaccines can prove very effective in treating pancreas cancer and multiple myeloma. In addition, Johns Hopkins is currently undertaking research on the use of vaccines to manage colon cancer. Recently, the Susan Cohan Colon Cancer Foundation presented a researcher at the hospital, Dr. Lei Zheng, with modest funding of $250,000 to fund a colon cancer vaccine research program. This funding will help test an immune-based vaccine as a treatment for colon cancer. Dr. Zheng and his team recently completed a phase 1 clinical trial of the vaccine and are now planning a new clinical trial that takes a combinational approach by pairing the vaccine with demethylating agents. The trial is focused on patients with metastatic colorectal cancer who have already completed chemotherapy.
Immunology research at Johns Hopkins has also improved outcomes from bone marrow transplants by prevent the body’s immune system from rejecting the donor marrow.
The Bloomberg and Kimmel Pledge to Health Sciences
The new cancer immunotherapy center represents the newest stage in a long, productive partnership between Kimmel, Bloomberg, and Johns Hopkins. In total, Michael Bloomberg has donated more than $1.2 billion to the university and the hospital since he graduated from the institution in 1964. His support has created a stem cell research institute, a malaria center, a children’s hospital, and a school of public health. He has also pledged a significant amount of money to the school to bring in new researchers and professors with a commitment to interdisciplinary approaches to finding solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems, including cancer. The new institute is an extension of this mission and a vote of faith in the potential of immunotherapy.
Sidney Kimmel has contributed more than $157 million since 2001. He has provided for the Kimmel Scholars Program, which supports young cancer scientists at Johns Hopkins, and the hospital’s primary cancer center bears his name. The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center is one of only 45 centers designated a comprehensive center by the National Cancer Institute.