Courtesy of Beatriz Horta

Professors from the Yale Cancer Center met virtually on Wednesday to discuss recent advances in immuno-oncology as a part of the Yale Engage webinar series on cancer.

Moderated by Professor of Medicine Mario Sznol, the series follows the webinar series that was held in June to discuss advances in COVID-19 research. The current Yale Engage Cancer series was hosted by the Yale Cancer Center in partnership with the Yale Office for Cooperative Research. According to University Director of Corporate Strategy and Engagement Kathleen Lynch, the series aims to foster collaboration between Yale scientists and the medical oncology industry, which could lead to quicker and more effective immunotherapy treatments. Wednesday’s event featured five panelists from the School of Medicine and “Corporate Guest” Ira Mellman, vice president of Genentech.

“Yale Engage Cancer was designed to share the expertise of Yale faculty who are at the frontier of cancer research, diagnosis, and treatment, to leverage our deep strengths in biological, engineering and health sciences to fully understand cancer and develop breakthrough solutions, and to identify possible resources and impact pathways to advance Yale faculty research in the battle against cancer,” Lynch wrote in an email to the News.

The webinar featured an introductory talk from Cancer Center Director Charles Fuchs, who emphasized the importance of communication between academics and pharmacological companies in developing immuno-oncological treatments. According to Fuchs, these collaborations must happen so that the necessary treatments can be found. It “takes a village” to combat cancer, Fuchs said.

Interim director for the Yale Center for Immuno-Oncology Marcus Bosenberg said during the event that the Center for Precision Cancer Modeling is leading the advances in making digital visualizations and predictions of the disease’s progression, a technique which was developed and has been exclusively used at Yale.

“What we are particularly excited about right now is to have personalized immunotherapy where we can look at different [immunotherapy] combinations in a patient in real-time and decide what might work best for them,” Bosenberg said. “We’re not fully there yet, but we think we’re pretty close.”

Sznol explained that there are several ways for the biotechnology industry and research centers like Yale to collaborate. According to Sznol, companies are not as efficient at determining receptors that could be drug targets as academic centers are — many companies lack the basic immunobiological knowledge to do so. On the other hand, Sznol said that the process of going from these drug targets to an actual drug is easier for a private company to navigate.

Then, the faculty members in attendance were asked to present their new research, especially in areas where industrial partnerships would contribute to the advancement of their projects. 

Professor of immunobiology and molecular, cellular and developmental biology Akiko Iwasaki presented her work on an immunological treatment developed within the Iwasaki Lab called LymphAxis. It aims to increase the circulation of antibodies in the brain by inserting a molecule called VEGF-C. 

“The brain is a unique organ in that it is immune privileged,” said Eric Song MED ’22, a postdoctoral research scientist at the Iwasaki Lab. “That means the immune system does not respond to anything that occurs in the brain in the same way it does for other parts of the body.”

According to Song, LymphAxis will lead to more circulation in the brain’s lymphatic vessels — which carry antibodies and other immune cells — and therefore increase the “immuno-surveillance” of the brain. Song said this makes it easier for antibodies to detect a brain tumor and trigger an immune response. 

Assistant professor of immunobiology Aaron Ring ’08 presented a project that he said has raised over $25 million for clinical trials. Ring works with cytokines, which are small molecules that act like hormones, to develop cells that will act on the interleukin-18 molecule and alter its inflammatory response. Ring is also interested in “the clinical trials of nature” — the natural chemicals created by our immune system to combat cancer.

Professor of medical oncology Roy Herbst ’84 and assistant professor Grace Chen also presented their own research along with initiatives developed by the Yale School of Medicine to stimulate interdepartmental projects that could be of interest to industry executives. Herbst, for example, is the leader of the Disease Aligned Research Teams initiative, where each DART is focused on promoting specific research that could be translated into clinical applications.

“We want to let industry know what sorts of resources we have available here and to have generalized discussions on important areas of research,” Sznol said.

The two next webinars in the Yale Engage Cancer Series will explore novel cancer therapeutics and delivery systems as well as biomarkers of cancer resistance.


Beatriz Horta | beatriz.horta@yale.edu