Marc Boudreaux

Yale Cancer Center late last year unveiled the Yale Center for Immuno-Oncology, a sizable foray into the relatively new field of immunotherapy.

The new center will focus on immuno-oncology, an area of research focused on how the body’s immune system can be leveraged to fight cancer. Yale has been involved in research in the immuno-oncology space for years through the School of Medicine and Yale Cancer Center, according to Charles Fuchs, director of Yale Cancer Center. The goal of creating a distinct immuno-oncology center is to centralize that research and take it even further, Fuchs said.

“The hope is [that] our immuno-oncology research can someday inform clinical trials and ultimately help us to achieve our goal of transforming the way we treat people affected by cancer,” said Roy Herbst ’84, interim director of the Yale Center for Immuno-Oncology.

The center will research biological mechanisms in the immune system that could be used to attack cancer, as well as design therapies to make use of those mechanisms, Fuchs said.

Already, there are drugs on the market that have been doing this with limited success. The center will look into what makes these drugs effective in some cases and ineffective in others, Fuchs added.

“Immunotherapy has now become a new paradigm in the way we diagnose and treat many types of cancer,” Herbst said. “I have personally witnessed amazing results in patients with advanced lung cancer, which would have previously been untreatable.”

However, he added, it works well for around only 10 to 20 percent of cases. Herbst went on to say that he envisions Yale using the resources of the Smilow Cancer Hospital and the Yale Cancer Center to bridge the gap between the lab and clinic and more quickly translate new discoveries to patients.

The Yale Cancer Center is a National Cancer Institute–designated comprehensive cancer center, the only one in the state of Connecticut, according to Daniel DiMaio, the center’s deputy director. The center not only conducts research in the field of cancer, it is also involved in clinical care through the Smilow Cancer Hospital. A month ago, the center joined pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb’s International Immuno-Oncology Network.

“Immunotherapy has basically become the fourth arm of cancer therapy. Beyond chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy, you now have immunotherapy,” Fuchs said. “That was a phenomenon that did not exist when I was in my training in oncology but is now becoming a part of the routine treatment for a variety of cancers.”

Oncologists have been trying to design immunotherapies for decades, but with limited results, Fuchs said. However, he noted, the past 10 years have seen a number of innovations in the field, many of which have come from Yale.

Cancer is a foreign entity that the immune system ought to recognize and attack, Fuchs said. Yale researchers have been working to find out why the immune system sometimes fails to combat cancer on its own and to create therapies that increase the body’s effectiveness in responding to cancer.

While the new immuno-oncology center will be housed principally in the School of Medicine, Fuchs said he predicts that the growing number of interdisciplinary affiliates of the center will conduct their work across the University and the Smilow Cancer Hospital.

“The idea of treating patients by activating their immune systems in a way that can treat their cancer is really exciting,” Fuchs said. “I know that the community of practitioners at Smilow hospital are really excited and want to be a part of it. And frankly, we want them to be part of it, because part of our initiative includes conducting clinical trials and they’re implicit in that.

Maya Chandra | maya.chandra@yale.edu