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The Center for Cancer Immunology is dedicated to exploring fundamental and translational approaches in cancer immunology, and creating a dynamic research environment in this rapidly emerging field of cancer biology.
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We are in the midst of a revolution in the treatment of cancer. By harnessing and enhancing the body’s immune system, we can reduce tumor burden in patients and, in a subset of patients and cancers, achieve long-lasting remission. This has led to FDA approval of immune-based treatments for melanoma, lung cancer and kidney cancer – with many more cancers soon to be impacted. As these treatments become the standard of care, we can say with increasing certainty that the era of cancer immunotherapy has begun.
Justin Gainor, MD and Nir Hacohen, PhD describe how researchers here at the Center for Cancer Immunology are activating the human immune system to target cancer within the body.
And yet, even as we are seeing some patients being cured by these new immunotherapies, most patients remain unresponsive. To accelerate and expand this ongoing revolution, we need to understand what drives immune responses against a tumor; determine why some patients experience effective immune responses while others do not; develop and bring safe and effective immunotherapies to patients; and invent completely new immune-based therapeutic strategies.
We recently created the Center for Cancer Immunology at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center to take on these challenges. Our achievements over the past decade at the Henri and Belinda Termeer Center for Targeted Therapies in understanding targeted cancer therapies and bringing them to patients provides a model for the seamless integration of basic research, translational sciences, clinical trials and patient care. Working closely with the leaders of the Termeer Center, physicians and scientists throughout Mass General and the Cancer Center, and our newly recruited faculty, we established the Center for Cancer Immunology to advance our understanding of cancer immunity and harness the immune system to cure cancer.
Our team members in the Center for Cancer Immunology are working creatively and passionately to understand the rules of the game for tumor immunity, to develop new and potent immunotherapies, and ultimately, to use the immune system as a powerful tool to prevent cancer progression. To do this, we have chosen to focus our efforts on four transformative programs:
With a world-class team and an extensive research and clinical infrastructure in place, we are ready to accelerate the delivery of these potentially lifesaving therapies to our patients and set new standards of care that will benefit patients worldwide.
Leadership and Core FacultyCollaborating LaboratoriesSupportive Laboratories
Four world-class immunologists recently founded the Center for Cancer Immunology, bringing deep expertise and synergistic goals.
Director, Center for Cancer Immunology, Massachusetts General Hospital Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School Senior Member, Broad Institute
Nir Hacohen, PhD, is Director of the Center for Cancer Immunology at Mass General and Co-Director of the Cell Circuits Program and Center for Cell Circuits at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. His work brings the powerful methods of human genetics and systems biology to the study of the immune system and cancer, and is the world’s leading researcher in systems immunology. Using these powerful methods, he has identified key molecular pathways and mechanisms underlying how we sense pathogens, how autoimmunity is initiated and what drives immune responses against tumors. He is analyzing in depth why a small number of people spontaneously eliminate their own tumors, and why some patients who receive immune checkpoint inhibitors experience impressive long-term regression of disease, while the majority of patients are mysteriously not responding to immunotherapy. Dr. Hacohen has also been developing novel vaccines to destroy almost any human cancer by detecting mutated proteins presented by the tumor. Visit the Hacohen lab.
Director, Cellular Immunotherapy Program, Massachusetts General Hospital Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
Marcela Maus, MD, PhD, is Director of the Cellular Immunotherapy Program and a member of the Center for Cancer Immunology at Mass General. Her work aims to understand and engineer novel forms of cellular therapies – using cells normally produced by our bodies – to treat patients with cancer. Cellular therapies have achieved unprecedented, durable responses in some blood cancers, particularly CAR-T cell therapy in acute lymphoblastic leukemia. These results demonstrate the tremendous power of engineering the immune system to recognize and eliminate tumor cells, and effect long-term clinical benefit. However, to be able to harness this power of the cellular immune system in other cancers, there is a need to identify and validate new targets, and to develop ways of enhancing both the safety and effectiveness of imperfect targets. Dr. Maus is building the Cellular Immunotherapy Program to create new and improved treatments for patients with leukemia, myeloma and brain tumors initially, but hopes to expand the program over time to cover numerous tumor types. Visit the Maus lab.
Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
Mark Cobbold, MD, PhD, a member of the Center for Cancer Immunology, aims to understand how a healthy immune response is able to recognize and destroy malignant cells and why this response fails in patients with cancer. He is further working to identify therapeutic targets that may help the immune system tell the difference between a healthy cell and a cancerous cell. One such type of target is termed post-translationally modified neo-antigens, which are attractive targets as they are not patient-specific and often shared between different types of cancer. Dr. Cobbold is also working on a novel approach that makes a cancer appear more foreign by decorating the tumor with tiny fragments of a virus, thus enhancing immune cell attack on the tumor. Ultimately, he would like to create powerful and universal vaccines that prevent cancers from growing out of control. Visit the Cobbold lab.
Assistant Professor of Dermatology, Massachusetts General Hospital
Shadmehr (Shawn) Demehri, MD, PhD, a member of the Center for Cancer Immunology, investigates the role of the immune system in modulating the early stages of cancer development in order to harness its anti-tumor potential to combat cancer. To date, several cancer immunotherapies have been developed with proven efficacy; however, these treatments are used mainly against late stage cancers to augment the anti-tumor immune response that has already formed against cancer cells. In contrast, Dr. Demehri’s research is focused on identifying the immune mechanisms that can prevent cancer formation from pre-cancerous lesions. This approach raises a great opportunity to discover novel immune pathways that can be leveraged in cancer therapy and prevention. Dr. Demehri is currently looking closely at CD4+ T cells and natural killer cells as activators of immunity against cancer, and is developing new therapies to stimulate these cells and stop early cancers from progressing to advance cancer. Visit the Demehri lab.
In addition to the core faculty, there are several laboratories across Mass General that bring diverse expertise and are collaborating to advance this effort, including:
Director, Cutaneous Biology Research CenterMassachusetts General Hospital
Associate Molecular Pathologist, Massachusetts General Hospital Director, Cancer Genome Computational Analysis Group, Broad Institute
Co-Executive Director, Translational Research Laboratory Massachusetts General Hospital
Principal Investigator, Center for Immunology and Inflammatory Diseases Massachusetts General Hospital
Faculty, Center for Systems Biology Massachusetts General Hospital
The Immune Monitoring Laboratory is an essential and integral part of the Cellular Immunotherapy Program. The laboratory provides expertise to enable translational clinical studies of immune-based therapies, based on the highest standard operating systems. Learn more.
Immunotherapies use the body’s natural defense mechanisms to kill the tumor. Scientists have known for decades that while cancer cells are often detected by the immune system, most cancers evade an attack by the immune system. The revolution in immunotherapy arose from the discovery that most immune cells lie asleep next to the tumor, and that our goal is to re-awaken them from their slumber. The recent ‘checkpoint blockade’ therapies approved by the FDA, and now used in thousands of cancer patients, awaken the immune cells (called ‘T cells’) to attack and kill tumor cells.
Learn more about the types of immunotherapy that make up the Center for Cancer Immunology's primary programs:
CAR-T cell therapy is a form of cellular immunotherapy in which T cells that are normally produced by our bodies are engineered to eliminate tumors. To produce CAR-T cells, blood is collected from a patient; T cells are isolated and expanded in a specialized laboratory; and then a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) is engineered into the T cells. The CAR is a homing device that guides the T cell to the patient’s tumor. The engineered T cells are then returned to the patient and the homing signal directs them to find and specifically kill cancer cells throughout the body, including the most dangerous metastases. In the past year, several clinical trials have demonstrated that CAR-T cells are extremely effective in eradicating certain cancers where standard treatments were ineffective, including acute lymphoblastic leukemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In principle, CAR-T cells can be engineered to target a wide variety of other blood cancers – such as multiple myeloma, acute myeloid leukemia – as well as solid tumors.
At the Center for Cancer Immunology, we are committed to make CAR-T cells work for many cancers. Learn more about the Cellular Immunotherapy Program at the Mass General Center.
Immune checkpoint proteins reside on the surface of immune cells and put on the brakes that block immune cells from destroying cancer. Some tumor cells even learn to use these braking signals as a shield that blocks the incoming attack by the immune system. Checkpoint therapies are designed to block the checkpoint proteins, thereby removing the brakes from the immune response, and inducing the patient’s immune system to kill cancer cells. Recent clinical trials of checkpoint inhibitors show success in melanoma (where it is now the clear standard of care), lung cancer, kidney, colorectal, bladder and many other tumors.
Our question is: why are some patients responsive to this therapy while most others simply ignore the therapy? If we can answer this question, we will know who should be treated, and find new ways to make the therapy effective in as many patients as possible.
One of the central questions in all of cancer immunology is what targets are best recognized by the immune system on tumors. We have developed two new and exciting programs to identify the most potent and precise tumor-specific targets. In the first program, we have identified proteins that are modified in cancer cells (by a process called ‘pshophorylation’) and presented on the surface of cells to T cells of the immune system. In the second program, we found that mutations that are present in each tumor also generate mutated molecules presented by tumors to T cells.
We propose to use these two classes of targets – as well as additional tumor targets that we will identify using leading-edge technologies – to create both universal and personalized vaccines to protect our bodies against cancer.
How does the immune system control the early stages of cancer development? Can we use the power of the immune system to prevent cancer from progressing? Several cancers including skin, breast, colon and prostate cancers currently have screening procedures, which allow for early detection of the lesion. However, in the majority of the cases the surgical removal of the cancer does not prevent its recurrence. The immune system is an ideal agent for sustained inhibition of cancer recurrence.
We are focused on understanding the immune response against early cancers, and developing therapies that will lead to long-term cures in our cancer patients.
We expect that our four programs of cancer immunotherapy – cellular immunotherapy, checkpoint inhibitors, vaccines and early immunotherapy – will fully transform the care of most cancers in the coming decade and beyond.
Featured Articles Videos Select Publications
The Center for Cancer Immunology’s investigators are working to expand the use of immunotherapy, a revolutionary approach to cancer therapy.
A new immunotherapy program at the Mass General Cancer Center is using engineered cells from the human immune system as powerful living drugs.
A new generation of cancer treatments harness an internal ally—the power of the immune system.
Clinical trials offer the most promising way of fully understanding how different patients and different cancers respond to immunotherapy.
Researchers at Mass General Hospital and the Broad Institute are discovering the intricacies of how the immune system works to kill cancer.
Meet two researchers at the Mass General Cancer Center who are activating the human immune system to target cancer within the body. Justin Gainor, MD and Nir Hacohen, PhD were honored as part of the one hundred in 2016 for their commitment to changing how we fight cancer.
Marcela Maus, MD, PhD, Director of Cellular Immunotherapy at Mass General, discusses the potential of engineered T cells in the fight against cancer at the 2016 Partners HealthCare World Medical Innovation Forum. Introduction by Daniel Haber, MD, PhD, Director, MGH Cancer Center.
Among the most promising approaches to activating therapeutic antitumor immunity is the blockade of immune checkpoints. Nir Hacohen, PhD moderates this panel on checkpoint activation and cancer vaccines at the 2016 Partners HealthCare World Medical Innovation Forum. Expert panelists discuss significant long-term cancer remissions, potential cures, and how boosting the body’s own defenses is producing stunning results when combined with standard anticancer therapies and other immunotherapies. They also detail the experimental vaccines in development that are designed to “wake up” the immune system so it will trigger reliable and effective attacks on cancer cells.
Moderator: Nir Hacohen, PhD, Director, MGH Center for Cancer Immunology. Panelists: Thomas Daniel, MD, Chairman, Celgene Research; Glenn Dranoff, MD, Global Head of Exploratory Immuno-Oncology, Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research; Robert Mulroy, President and CEO, Merrimack Pharmaceuticals; David Reese, MD, Senior Vice President, Translational Sciences, Amgen; Scott Rodig, MD, PhD, Associate Professor, BWH; Arlene Sharpe, MD, PhD, Leader, Cancer Immunology, BWH, DFCI; George Fabyan Professor of Comparative Pathology, Harvard Medical School.
Oncology sits on the cusp of a new revolution thanks to the use of human cells as versatile therapeutic engines. David Fisher, MD, PhD moderates this panel on cell based therapies at the 2016 Partners HealthCare World Medical Innovation Forum. By modifying T cells to express chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) that recognize cancer-specific antigens, expert panelists describe how they have been able to prime cells to recognize and kill tumor cells that would otherwise escape immune detection. They also detail the various “living drugs” that kill cancer cells and could replace standard oncology treatments in the future.
Moderator: David Fisher, MD, PhD, Chief, Dermatology Service, Director, Melanoma Program, Director, Cutaneous Biology Research Center, MGH Cancer Center. Panelists: Usman (Oz) Azam, MD, Global Head, Cell & Gene Therapies Unit, Novartis; Mark Frohlich, MD, Executive Vice President, Portfolio Strategy, Juno Therapeutics; Marcela Maus, MD, PhD, Director of Cellular Immunotherapy, MGH; Chuck Wilson, PhD, CEO, Unum Therapeutics.
Shawn Demehri, MD, PhD of Mass General's Center for Cancer Immunology discusses tumor immunity against early stages of cancer development at the 2016 Partners HealthCare World Medical Innovation Forum. Introduction by Daniel Haber, MD, PhD, Director, MGH Cancer Center.
Mark Cobbold, MD, PhD of Mass General's Center for Cancer Immunology discusses tumor antigens in cancer and how to manipulate antigens to stimulate immunity at the 2016 Partners HealthCare World Medical Innovation Forum. Introduction by Daniel Haber, MD, PhD, Director, MGH Cancer Center.
Donald P. Lawrence, MD, Clinical Director of the Center for Melanoma at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, discusses the clinical aspects of immune checkpoint therapeutics.
View more publications from the Hacohen, Maus, Cobbold and Demehri labs.
The Center for Cancer Immunology is dedicated to learning how to activate the immune system to target and destroy cancer within the body. Give today to help us revolutionize the way we treat cancer – not just at Mass General, but also worldwide.
For information about how you can support this program, call: 617-726-2200
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