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Cancer Research Institute to Bestow Top Scientific Prize for Breakthrough Discoveries in Cancer Immunotherapy

Four scientists to receive the Coley Award at Cancer Research Institute’s annual fall gala

NEW YORK (Aug. 1, 2014) – The Cancer Research Institute (CRI), a New York-based nonprofit committed to the discovery and development of immune system-based cancer treatments, will present its annual William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Tumor Immunology to four individuals for their collective contributions to the discovery of the programmed cell death-1 (PD-1) receptor pathway, a new immune system checkpoint that has been shown in clinical studies to be a highly promising target in cancer immunotherapy:

  • Tasuku Honjo, M.D., Ph.D., of Kyoto University School of Medicine;
  • Lieping Chen, M.D., Ph.D., of Yale University School of Medicine;
  • Arlene Sharpe, M.D., Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School; and
  • Gordon Freeman, Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Each of these individuals, three of whom were collaborators, made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the PD-1 receptor pathway. These individuals will receive their award at CRI’s 28th annual awards dinner on October 7 at Guastavino’s in New York City. In addition, Dr. Chen will deliver the second annual William B. Coley lecture on the first day of the Cancer Research Institute International Cancer Immunotherapy Symposium, which begins October 6 at The Grand Hyatt in New York City.

Immune system checkpoints, such as PD-1, are cellular signaling pathways that dampen the cell-killing action of the immune system’s T cells. Often likened to the T cells’ brakes, they help to rein in an aggressive immune response once a pathogen or dangerous cell has been destroyed. This braking system helps to prevent collateral damage to healthy tissues and is a crucial part of the body’s normal system of checks and balances. But this braking system can become a liability in cancer: immune checkpoints are often what prevent the immune system from waging an effective battle against cancer.

Collectively, the research conducted by this year’s Coley Award winners showed that PD-1 is a new checkpoint on T cells; that this receptor has two natural ligands, or binding partners, called PD-L1 and PD-L2; that one of these, PD-L1 (also identified as B7-H1), is often found on human cancer; and that blocking either receptor or ligand with a monoclonal antibody could result in improved immune-related tumor destruction.

PD-1 is the second immune system checkpoint to be discovered and utilized in cancer immunotherapy. The first, CTLA-4, was discovered by scientists in the late 1980s, and shown in the mid-1990s to be a useful target for cancer immunotherapy by former Coley Award winner James Allison, Ph.D. Allison’s work established the concept of checkpoint blockade therapy—often described as "taking the brakes off" the immune response—and led to the development of the first checkpoint inhibitor drug, ipilimumab (Yervoy®), an anti-CTLA-4 monoclonal antibody approved by the FDA for use in melanoma in 2011.

The discovery of a second immune checkpoint paved the way for the development of a new set of checkpoint inhibitor drugs: nivolumab (Bristol-Myers Squibb), pembrolizumab (Merck), MPDL3280A (Genentech), and MEDI4736 (MedImmune/AstraZeneca). Some of these drugs target the PD-1 receptor itself, while others target the ligand PD-L1 (B7-H1). The effectiveness of PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor drugs in treating several types of deadly cancer, including melanoma, non-small cell lung cancer, head and neck cancer, bladder cancer, and kidney cancer, has generated a great deal of excitement among oncologists and immunologists, and fueled a renewed sense of optimism about the power of immunotherapy to treat cancer. 

“The discovery of PD-1 as a new immune checkpoint that can be exploited in cancer immunotherapy was a triumph of scientific collaboration, made possible by a continuum of research spanning a decade,” said Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, Ph.D., CEO and director of scientific affairs at CRI. “With PD-1 checkpoint inhibitors added to the therapeutic arsenal of combination therapies, we hope to see even bigger responses in more patients.”

For more on the clinical progress that is being made with PD-1 inhibitors see the following blog post about the recent meeting of the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO): http://www.cancerresearch.org/news-publications/our-blog/june-2014/immunotherapy-today-the-view-from-asco


About the William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Basic and Tumor Immunology
CRI established this award in 1975 in honor of Dr. William B. Coley, a pioneer of cancer immunotherapy, whose daughter Helen Coley Nauts (1907-2001) founded the Cancer Research Institute. Award winners are nominated by CRI’s Scientific Advisory Council, the Academy of Cancer Immunology, and former Coley Award winners, including: Michael Karin (2013); Carl June and Michel Sadelain (2012); Philip D. Greenberg and Steven A. Rosenberg (2011); Haruo Ohtani, Wolf Hervé Fridman, and Jérôme Galon (2010); Cornelis J.M. Melief, Klaus Rajewsky, and Frederick W. Alt (2009); Michael J. Bevan (2008); Jeffrey V. Ravetch (2007); Shizuo Akira, Bruce A. Beutler, Ian H. Frazer, and Harald zur Hausen (2006); James P. Allison (2005); Shimon Sakaguchi and Ethan M. Shevach (2004); Jules A. Hoffmann, Charles A. Janeway, Bruno Lemaitre, and Ruslan Medzhitov (2003); Lewis L. Lanier, David H. Raulet, and Mark J. Smyth (2002); and Robert D. Schreiber (2001). Each winner receives a cash prize of $5,000 and a gold medallion bearing the likeness of Coley.

To view a complete list of Coley Award recipients, go to www.cancerresearch.org/about/annual-awards/william-b-coley-award.

About the Cancer Research Institute
The Cancer Research Institute (CRI), established in 1953, is the world’s only nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to transforming cancer patient care by advancing scientific efforts to develop new and effective immune system-based strategies to prevent, diagnose, treat, and eventually cure all cancers. Guided by a world-renowned Scientific Advisory Council that includes three Nobel laureates and 26 members of the National Academy of Sciences, CRI has invested $282 million in support of research conducted by immunologists and tumor immunologists at the world’s leading medical centers and universities, and has contributed to many of the key scientific advances that demonstrate the potential for immunotherapy to change the face of cancer treatment. To learn more, go to www.cancerresearch.org

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