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Coley to Cure: 60 Years and Counting

June 20, 2014 | Jill O'Donnell-Tormey, Ph.D.

The era of cancer immunotherapy has arrived. After years of only marginal recognition, the approach has finally captured the attention and respect of the scientific establishment as a whole. And rightly so: cancer immunotherapy offers the greatest hope of transforming cancer treatment in our lifetimes.

As the one institution that has consistently supported cancer immunology from the beginning, the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) is proud of the successes the field is now witnessing. Having Science magazine deem cancer immunotherapy the 2013 “Breakthrough of the Year” was fitting testimony to just how far we’ve come.

Yet, as we celebrate our contemporary successes and look optimistically toward the future, it is also appropriate to look back at where the field came from. Cancer immunotherapy did not spring to life out of nowhere in the past five years. It took decades of dedicated work by scientists and lay people who saw value in the approach and worked tirelessly to make it a reality. For many years, CRI was the only institution devoted to nurturing the field of cancer immunology. And it did so at a time when there was little interest from the medical establishment. If it weren’t for CRI, cancer immunology as we know it today simply would not exist.


For more than 60 years, CRI has provided these resources, allowing cancer immunotherapy to grow from a largely empirical, trial-and-error approach to a mature science backed up by deep knowledge of the immune system.


When CRI was founded in 1953, the mainstays of cancer treatment were surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy—just as they are today. The immune system and how it works to fight infection—to say nothing of cancer—was largely a mystery. No one but a handful of visionary individuals saw the potential of immune-based treatments for cancer, and the work these individuals pursued happened far out of the limelight. Yet from the beginning, the goal of CRI was nothing short of revolutionary: to conquer cancer just like smallpox and polio had been.

CRI’s founders knew that reaching this goal would require steadfast financial commitment and sustained scientific research. For more than 60 years, CRI has provided these resources, allowing cancer immunotherapy to grow from a largely empirical, trial-and-error approach to a mature science backed up by deep knowledge of the immune system.

So intertwined are the histories of cancer immunotherapy and the history of CRI as an institution that it is impossible to tell the story of one without the other. In many ways, the story of the Cancer Research Institute is the story of cancer immunotherapy. Like any good story, this one comes with a cast of memorable characters, unexpected plot twists, and an ending that will leave you wanting more.

In addition to enjoyment and a greater understanding of what cancer immunotherapy has to offer, I hope readers will take from this retrospective a sense of the collaborative nature of science, and the role that institutions like CRI play in nurturing the decades-long process of scientific discovery. Thanks to the work of thousands of CRI-funded scientists, cancer immunotherapy is changing the face of cancer treatment, so much so that curing some forms of cancer is now truly within our reach. With continued financial support from the donors who make our work possible, CRI will continue to lead this important field well into the future.

— * If you would like to request a print copy of our retrospective, Coley to Cure, please contact us at info@cancerresearch.org or (212) 688-7515.

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