Last year, Science magazine declared “Cancer Immunotherapy” as the Breakthrough of 2013. This designation reflects the very substantial progress that has been made in our understanding of immune dysfunction that contributes to development of cancer and ways to harness the immune system to fight cancer. Antibody and cell based therapies are advancing at a rapid pace in a variety of cancers ranging from melanoma to non-small cell lung cancer to various hematological malignancies. Vaccines now exist against two key viruses that can lead to cancer–the hepatitis B virus that is associated with liver cancer and the human papilloma virus (HPV) that leads to cervical and head and neck cancers.
We at UPCI have been at the forefront of this field from our beginning in 1985 thanks to the vision of our founding director, Ronald Herberman, M.D., a noted cancer immunologist who discovered the NK cell and established cancer immunology as a key pillar of our research portfolio. Dr. Herberman assembled an accomplished team of investigators including luminaries like Drs. Theresa Whiteside, Olivera Finn, Robert Ferris, Michael Lotze, Pawel Kalinski, David Bartlett, Lisa Butterfield, John Kirkwood, Hassane Zarour, and many more who have worked relentlessly to unravel the complexities of the immune system in cancer etiology and treatment. Last month, we were proud to honor Dr. Herberman as Dr. Whiteside presented the first Herberman Memorial Lecture on immune function in cancer at our 26th UPCI retreat.
Over the last year several key transitions in our faculty leaders have taken place that will allow us to maintain our preeminence in this exciting field. After over a decade of service as founding chair of the Department of Immunology, Dr. Finn stepped away from this administrative task in 2013 and was succeeded by Mark Shlomchik, M.D., Ph.D., from Yale University. An immunologist of note especially in the area of autoimmune diseases like lupus, Dr. Shlomchik moved rapidly to recruit cancer immunologist Dario Vignali, Ph.D., from St. Jude Cancer Center to serve as Vice-Chair of the Department of Immunology. We are delighted that Dr. Vignali will also join Dr. Ferris to serve as co-leader of our University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Cancer Immunology Program. Already they are extending our reach into the study of the tumor microenvironment through collaborative work in labs across the university campus.
Our leaders are also prominent nationally. We just learned that Dr. Butterfield has been elected as Vice-President of the Society of Immunotherapy for Cancer (SITC). After a two year term of service, she will become President of SITC from 2016-2018, the first female president of the Society in its 30 year history. She will follow in the footsteps of previous SITC presidents from Pittsburgh: Drs. Herberman (1994-1996) and Lotze (1998-2000). This is indeed a fitting tribute to the vision of Dr. Herberman and a clear statement about the role we will continue to play in designing new targeted immunotherapies against cancer.