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Symposium Highlights Key Advances in Cancer Immunotherapy

Researchers share insights in harnessing the immune system to treat cancer.

Published June 15, 2017

NEW YORK, June 15, 2017 – On February 27-28, 2017, the Mushett Family Foundation, the journals Science, Science Immunology, and Science Translational Medicine, and the New York Academy of Sciences jointly presented the two-day scientific symposium, Frontiers in Cancer Immunotherapy, held at the Academy headquarters in downtown Manhattan.

This conference brought together preclinical and clinical researchers with industry and government representatives, with the aim of improving immunotherapeutic approaches in cancer treatment to the benefit of all patients. Immunotherapy is a promising class of cancer therapy that harnesses the immune system to destroy cancer cells. Unlike radiation and chemotherapy regimens that cannot differentiate between healthy and cancerous cells, immunotherapy allows for the specific targeting of tumor tissue. It achieves these results through two main methods: augmenting the immune response to eliminate cancer cells, or neutralizing the mechanisms that suppress immune reactivity. However, the excitement surrounding immunotherapy is tempered by unpredictable responses, wherein some patients receive no clinical benefit, and occasionally devastating toxicity.

To address this urgent need, the Academy hosted two days of programming that explored the complexity of immunotherapy. Specific topics discussed at this meeting included the evaluation of combination therapy strategies, immune-monitoring strategies to identify prognostic and predictive biomarkers, how to overcome immune tolerance, and the incorporation of genomics in research and trials.

More information about the symposium can be found in the Academy eBriefing. Highlights and key data points included:

Conference Highlights

  • Keynote speaker Padmanee Sharma, MD, PhD, MD Anderson Cancer Center, declared that immune checkpoint therapy has become the fourth pillar of cancer treatment, joining surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

  • Jedd Wolchok, MD, PhD, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, presented data showing that combinations of immunotherapy medicines led to higher response rates, but also generate more toxicity than monotherapy. Additional study is needed to better understand how to precisely design therapies based on an individual patient’s pre-existing immune response to the cancer.

  • Stephen Baylin, MD, Johns Hopkins University, explained how epigenetic therapies can be used to render tumors more immunogenic (i.e. more visible to immune cells), to activate T cells, and to spare T cells from exhaustion so that the tumor-targeting response can be perpetuated.

Key Data Points

  • Thomas Gajewski, MD, PhD, University of Chicago, revealed that T cell dysfunction inside tumors may be due to apoptosis (cell death), wherein they are constantly expanding but simultaneously dying off before they can attack the tumor.

  • Hiroyoshi Nishikawa, MD, PhD, National Cancer Center Japan, explained that the marker FOXP3 in T cells is associated with different prognostic outcomes in colorectal cancers, depending on its level. Therefore it is more complex than a biopsy being simply positive or negative for FOXP3.

  • Matthew Gubin, PhD, Washington University, presented personalized cancer vaccines that have comparable efficacy to immune checkpoint blockades in mice. The vaccine can be generated in only eight weeks, potentially speeding up therapy, and as they would be patient-specific they may reduce toxicity.

“The success of immunotherapy heralds a new era in oncology, but its efficacy in patients is still not fully understood,” said one of the symposium’s organizers, Kari Fischer, PhD, Program Manager, Life Sciences Conferences at the New York Academy of Sciences. “This symposium allowed for an unprecedentedly intimate gathering of some of the greatest minds in the field, whose work will continue to unveil the power of these therapies.”

About the New York Academy of Sciences

The New York Academy of Sciences is an independent, not-for-profit organization that since 1817 has been driving innovative solutions to society’s challenges by advancing scientific research, education, and policy. With more than 20,000 Members in 100 countries, the Academy is creating a global community of science for the benefit of humanity. Please visit us online at and follow us on Twitter at @NYASciences