About CRI

Our History

The Cancer Research Institute was founded by Helen Coley Nauts in 1953. To appreciate the history of the Institute, however, we should actually look back to 1938. While mourning the death of her father Dr. William B. Coley — a prominent surgeon who practiced medicine in New York between 1890 and 1936 — Mrs. Nauts began to go through his papers and realized that although he was a noted cancer surgeon, he had also been a pioneer in the non-surgical treatment of cancer.

Bacterial Toxins and Treatments

Mrs. Nauts learned that, in the early 1890s, Dr. Coley began to take note in a number of cancer patient cases that some patients experienced spontaneous remission of their tumors when they contracted acute bacterial infections. Convinced that the disappearance of the tumors was somehow connected with the infections, Dr. Coley took a daring step. He injected live bacteria into a patient with an inoperable malignant tumor in order to bring about a virulent infection. The patient made a complete recovery, living another 26 years until a heart attack took his life. Dr. Coley went on to develop a safe and effective mixture of bacteria for treating cancer patients known as Coley’s mixed bacterial toxins. Unfortunately, Dr. Coley’s work was overshadowed by the advent of X-ray and radium treatment and, subsequently, chemotherapy.

Mrs. Nauts became inspired by her father’s work and, recognizing its potential significance, undertook her own investigations into Coley’s mixed bacterial toxins. A housewife and mother, Mrs. Nauts had no formal medical training, yet she felt compelled to find a way to let people know about her father’s important work. Over the next dozen years, with neither a medical education nor financial backing, Helen taught herself oncology, immunology and record keeping in order to interpret and publish her father’s important work. It took her more than three years to finish the monumental task of sorting through his records, which lacked the detailed case histories that were needed to prove the effectiveness of his toxins. She tracked down 896 cases of microscopically confirmed cancers that had been treated with Coley’s mixed bacterial toxins. She published her findings — data compilations so precise that they are still consulted by cancer researchers for clues about the disease — showing that there truly were beneficial effects to her father’s treatment.

The “Father of Cancer Immunotherapy”

Although the first half of the twentieth century witnessed great advancement in the medical application of the biological sciences, the field of immunology during these first visionary years remained a neglected and sparely populated landscape. Mrs. Nauts’ groundbreaking work rekindled the medical community’s interest in exploring the link between cancer and the immune system. As a result, the medical community has come to regard Dr. William B. Coley as the “Father of Cancer Immunotherapy.”

But Mrs. Nauts’ fight did not end there. She envisioned an organization that would address the needs of the growing field of cancer immunology, and support the people and projects that would establish immunotherapy as a major force in the fight against cancer.

With a grant of $2,000 from Nelson Rockefeller, Mrs. Nauts and her devoted friend Oliver R. Grace founded the Cancer Research Institute in 1953. During the first two decades of CRI’s history, the science of cancer immunology grew rapidly. Mrs. Nauts successfully recruited some of the world’s most prestigious and innovative oncologists and immunologists to serve on the Institute’s Scientific Advisory Council. Prominent among these advisors today include Nobel Laureates, members of the National Academy of Sciences, and members of the Academy of Cancer Immunology. Mrs. Nauts assumed the role of the Institute’s executive director and served tirelessly in that role until 1982, when she became the Institute’s director of science and medical communications. During that time, her efforts to educate the public and foster scientific discourse within the medical community gave the Cancer Research Institute international renown as a clearinghouse for information on the field of cancer immunology. She remained actively involved in the Institute’s affairs until her death in January 2001 at the age of 93. As a result of Mrs. Nauts’ work and the efforts of those she inspired, cancer immunology now offers one of the most promising approaches to the understanding and control of cancer, and the Institute she founded is now regarded as a pioneering and leading force in cancer research.

Expansion and Education

Over the course of its 50+ years in existence, the Institute has undergone several important programmatic evolutions in response to (and often in anticipation of) developments in the field of cancer immunology. The first of these began in 1971, when the Institute appointed Lloyd J. Old, M.D., a prominent cancer immunologist, to be the Institute’s medical director. He set out at once to expand CRI’s scope, bringing many of the world’s most distinguished immunologists to the Institute’s Scientific Advisory Council. It became a body that could speak with unimpeachable authority.

In 1971, the Institute established its Postdoctoral Fellowship Program to attract outstanding young scientists to immunology and train them in the best labs under the tutelage of skilled mentors. This investment in the field grew an increasing population of cancer immunologists needing funding at more advanced stages of their careers. To meet this need, the Institute established in 1986 as a complement to its postdoctoral fellowships its Investigator Award Program, which provides funding to tenure track assistant professors who are making their first forays into independent research—a challenging period that can determine the course of a career for years to come.

CRI’s decades of investments in immunology paid significant dividends in the 1990s. Armed with deeper knowledge of the immune system’s basic workings, scientists were able to create techniques for identifying cancer antigens suitable for testing in vaccines. They learned how to construct many types of vaccines to deliver a given antigen, and developed methods to precisely monitor the results. As discoveries began to migrate from the laboratory bench to the medical clinic, CRI adapted yet again to provide funding for those investigators who were carrying out the avant garde research by creating a Clinical Investigation Program that supports preclinical studies and clinical trials testing new immunotherapies against cancer. The Institute also added another program, its Student Training and Research in Tumor Immunology (STaRT), a training program to support graduate students planning to pursue a career in cancer immunology.

Meanwhile, in order to establish a more formal network of cancer immunology’s international talent base, the Institute initiated in 1994 its Annual International Cancer Immunotherapy Symposium. These annual meetings convene researchers from dozens of countries and bring them up to the minute on progress in the field. CRI is the only private institution in the world capable of convening such a diverse array of leading immunologists and tumor immunologists. Most recently, these meetings have evolved to incorporate experts from the field of HIV vaccination, as there is significant and complementary overlap in the efforts of both fields to discover the most effective approaches to vaccination against these diseases.

Fostering Global Collaboration

It became apparent that many research centers were working toward common goals, but the lack of communication and teamwork among them was proving a hindrance to the advancement of the field. Research often consists of stand-alone projects that follow their own guidelines. Results are hard to compare and learn from, and proprietary interests often get in the way of sharing those results. To counter this inertia and accelerate discovery, CRI’s Scientific Advisory Council posed the idea that the Institute should develop further its unique powers as a convening agent by coordinating research efforts across international boundaries.

The collaborative research model was the result of this effort. This model brings together the best researchers from different institutions and focuses them on the most promising topics. With the implementation of standardized methods for monitoring and data reporting in a free and open forum, CRI facilitated a more efficient approach to discovery that maximizes each participating institution’s intellectual, financial, and physical resources.

Beginning in 1999, the model was first employed in what is now called the Cancer Antigen Discovery Collaborative, dedicated to identifying antigens in colon, breast, and prostate cancer. As CRI entered the new millennium, the proven model was applied to tests of vaccines on actual patients, through its Cancer Vaccine Collaborative. Developed jointly with the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, the CVC unites a growing number of researchers in a worldwide quest that should ultimately uncover the basics of effective cancer immunization. From 2001 to 2011, the CADC and the CVC comprised the two arms of the Clinical Investigation Program that originally began in the 90s.

Increased Efficiency Through Consolidation

In late 2007, the Irvington Institute for Immunological Research merged with the Cancer Research Institute, combining its postdoctoral fellowship program with CRI's. During the more than 90 years of its existence, the Irvington Institute established itself as a leading source of postdoctoral fellowship funding for research on immunology and diseases associated with the immune system, including AIDS, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other immune system disorders. The merger consolidated the resources of both organizations, with CRI assuming leadership of the combined program, renamed the CRI Irvington Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. As a result of the merger, the Cancer Research Institute was able to grow by 25 percent the number of fellows it funds each year. In the increasingly competitive environment of academic research funding, CRI's ability to fund additional fellowship awards helps to secure the future of immunological and cancer immunological research.

The following year, the Cancer Vaccine Consortium of the Sabin Vaccine Institute came under the Cancer Research Institute's fold. This association of biotech and pharma companies and academic institutions engaged in cancer immunotherapy development extends the scope of CRI's impact beyond academic research and early clinical discovery into later-phase clinical development often led by industry. In 2010, the association renamed itself the Cancer Immunotherapy Consortium to better reflect the group's mission to advance the development of all cancer immunotherapies and not just vaccines.

Innovation and Transition

In 2010, CRI took an important strategic step forward in realizing its mission to conquer cancer through immunotherapy with the launch of the Cancer Vaccine Acceleration Fund. The Fund is an innovative model for philanthropic investment in early-stage clinical development of promising cancer immunotherapies that have been prioritized by our scientific leadership based on their potential to revolutionize cancer treatment in the near term. The Fund empowers the clinical trials infrastructure built jointly by CRI and its partner the Ludwig Institute, and obtains access to industry-controled drugs for use in CRI/Ludwig Cancer Vaccine Collaborative (CVC) clinical trials. In 2012, CRI rolled the CVC and the Fund into a single program called the Clinical Accelerator.

2011 saw other historic transitions at CRI with the retirement in June of our founding scientific and medical director, Lloyd J. Old, M.D., as director of the CRI/Ludwig Cancer Vaccine Collaborative, and in August as director of the CRI Scientific Advisory Council. Sadly, Dr. Old passed away in November. CRI established the endowed Lloyd J. Old Memorial Fellowship Fund, and in 2012 began to co-fund with the American Association for Cancer Research the annual Lloyd J. Old Award in Cancer Immunology.

Taking the helm of CRI's scientific leadership are two highly distinguished cancer immunologists who both worked closely with Dr. Old and who have been members of the CRI community for many years. In June 2011, CRI and the Ludwig Institute named Jedd D. Wolchok, M.D., Ph.D., director of the CRI/Ludwig Cancer Vaccine Collaborative. CRI named James P. Allison, Ph.D., as Dr. Old's successor as director of the Scientific Advisory Council. The combined expertise of Drs. Wolchok and Allison ensures CRI has a solid foundation as more promising cancer immunotherapies make the transition from the laboratory into the clinic and beyond.

The Path Forward

Today, virtually every major research institution in the world has scientists on staff who have been or are currently being funded by CRI, with fresh talent on the way. The journey begun by Dr. Coley isn’t over. The Institute’s work has brought us very close to the establishment of more immune-based therapies, such as cancer vaccines and a growing repertoire of antibody-based therapies, as standard cancer treatment options for patients around the globe.

Collaboration with the many others who have now joined in our belief that immunotherapy holds the key to conquering all cancers will be a cornerstone of our strategy. By seeking innovative partnerships with biotech and pharmaceutical companies, as well as disease-specific cancer charities seeking to extend their research portfolio into clinical immunology, while also remaining committed to funding basic science and training future generations of scientists, CRI will continue to be a pioneer in bringing immunotherapies to more cancer patients.

Researchers are confident that, in the foreseeable future, doctors will have a wide range of immunotherapies as a front-line defense against cancer that may also improve the effectiveness of today's standard, non-immunological approaches.

With your help, that day will be here sooner rather than later.