In 1998, a young medical doctor named Dirk Jäger left his position as an attending physician at Krankenhaus Nordwest in Frankfurt, Germany, to accept a CRI-supported postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Dr. Yao-Tseng Chen at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City. As part of his fellowship training, Dr. Jäger learned how to perform serological assays using the then-novel SEREX technology to identify tumor antigens that can be used as targets for cancer immunotherapy. During the following two years, Dr. Jäger discovered two highly immunogenic cancer antigens: NY-BR-1, a breast cancer antigen, and the melanoma antigen RAB38/NY-MEL-1. Both antigens, he learned, are recognized and targeted by the immune system and might therefore make good candidates as targets for cancer vaccines or antibody-based cancer therapies.
In 2000, Dr. Jäger returned to Krankenhaus Nordwest in his native Germany, taking back with him the knowledge and experience he’d gained during his fellowship in the United States. There he carried out a series of studies on his new antigens, learning that they were part of the growing number of differentiation antigens, a special group of cellular protein markers found only on cancer cells and on differentiated normal cells of a special cell lineage. Their limited expression in the body and their ability to stimulate immune responses confirmed them as good vaccine targets.
In 2003, Dr. Jäger was called to the University Hospital of Zurich by CRI Scientific Advisor Dr. Alexander Knuth, who had recently been charged with heading the cancer clinic and establishing a new cancer immunotherapy program there. Dr. Jäger continued his studies of the NY-BR-1 antigen while also gaining further experience in the clinical treatment of cancer patients. Working closely with Dr. Knuth in his efforts to establish the new treatment facility in Zurich taught Dr. Jäger many important lessons about leadership and the challenges that go along with starting a new program within an academic medical institution.
These lessons would serve Dr. Jäger well when, in 2005, he was offered the position of director of medical oncology at the University Hospital of Heidelberg, Germany, which operates as part of the broader National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) in partnership with the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ). One of the primary goals of the NCT is to establish new treatment strategies to fi ght cancer—cancer vaccines and antibody therapies being among the most promising. Dr. Jäger was tasked with implementing a new cancer treatment program at the hospital that would improve the overall quality of patient care. He was also asked to direct the hospital’s oncology research programs, and was given laboratory, staffing, and other resources to ensure the success of his program. In 2006, the Cancer Research Institute provided Dr. Jäger with an Investigator Award, a four-year grant to support his further studies on NY-BR-1.
Today, a year and a half after becoming director, Dr. Jäger reports that he has had success in establishing a new treatment program, which is characterized by a newly implemented interdisciplinary concept he devised: every cancer patient is seen by a wide range of specialists from different departments, including oncology, hematology, surgery, urology, among others, to ensure that comprehensive measures are taken to treat each individual according to his or her specific condition. His newly established clinical trials center is currently running 20 phase II and III clinical trials, and the clinic sees more than 250 new cancer patients every month. Meanwhile, researchers within his laboratory store and analyze tumor tissue samples to monitor for spontaneous anti-cancer immune responses and seek to correlate these responses to patients’ overall course of disease.
“The program has been well accepted and is very active,” Dr. Jäger reports. Over the next two years, Dr. Jäger will seek to double the clinic’s treatment capacity and will focus on expanding the experimental tumor immunology program. “I plan to implement vaccine trials in pancreatic and breast cancer, including CRI/LICR Cancer Vaccine Collaborative vaccine trials targeting the NY-BR-1 and NYMEL-1 antigens I discovered during my CRI Postdoctoral Fellowship. The first phase I vaccine trials will begin in a few months. This is very exciting for me; it’s an opportunity to see my basic laboratory research achieve real clinical application for potential patient benefit.”
Throughout his rapid rise from postdoctoral fellow to medical director, Dr. Jäger’s career has been fueled by outstanding accomplishment and distinction. For nearly a decade, he has been an active member of CRI’s research community and has made significant contributions to the Institute’s cancer vaccine programs. “My close interactions with the Cancer Research Institute and the CRI/LICR Cancer Vaccine Collaborative’s international network of clinicians and research scientists has been—and will continue to be—crucial to the success of our own vaccine and immunotherapy programs,” says Dr. Jäger.
“Dr. Jäger is a model of the quality and caliber of young talent the Institute’s Postdoctoral Fellowship and Investigator Award programs seek to support and cultivate,” says CRI Executive Director Jill O’Donnell-Tormey. “His success, as well as the success of many other young scientists like him who have benefited from our research funding programs, is evidence that CRI plays a critical role in providing these talented researchers with the financial and community support they require to advance to the next stages of their careers. As they assume leadership positions within the world’s top medical research and treatment facilities, they broaden CRI’s footprint of success and show that the Institute continues to make a significant impact in cancer research. It’s something we take pride in, and it’s something our donors can take pride in, too.”