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Steven A. Rosenberg, MD, PhD, Awarded the 2019 Szent-Györgyi Prize

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The 2019 Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research will be awarded to Steven A. Rosenberg, MD, PhD, of the Center for Cancer Research (CCR) at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The prize, awarded annually by the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR), recognizes Dr. Rosenberg’s pioneering role in the development of adoptive immunotherapy to treat cancer.

According to NFCR, the Szent-Györgyi Prize honors scientists “who have made an original discovery or breakthrough in scientific understanding that has had a lasting impact on the cancer field and a direct impact of saving people’s lives.” The prize was established in 2006 in honor of NFCR’s cofounder, Albert Szent-Györgyi, MD, PhD, who received the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his study of vitamin C and cell respiration.

Dr. Rosenberg, Chief of CCR’s Surgery Branch, developed the first effective immunotherapies and gene therapies for selected patients with advanced cancer and was the first to successfully insert foreign genes—in this case, genetically modified T cells—into humans. His immunotherapy clinical trials have resulted in the regression of metastatic cancer in patients with melanoma, sarcomas, lymphomas, and other cancers.

Dr. Rosenberg’s clinical trials of the protein interleukin-2 (IL-2) led to the first immunotherapy approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for cancer in 1992. When investigating the mechanism of IL-2 that causes cancer regression in patients with metastatic melanoma, Dr. Rosenberg identified immune cells that had cancer-fighting properties called tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs). He and his team were the first to show in clinical trials that TILs extracted from a tumor, grown to large numbers in the lab, and then administered back to a patient—a treatment known as adoptive cell transfer (ACT) immunotherapy—could lead to tumor regression in patients with advanced melanoma.  

With his team, Dr. Rosenberg also initially developed a form of ACT immunotherapy in which a patient’s T cells are removed, genetically engineered in the laboratory to bind to specific proteins on cancer cells and kill them, and then administered back to the patient. He was the first to use T lymphocytes genetically engineered to express a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) to successfully treat patients with aggressive lymphomas. In 2017, the FDA approved the first CAR T-cell therapies for children and young adults with a form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), and then for adults with advanced lymphomas.

In his current research, Dr. Rosenberg is working to extend ACT to patients with common epithelial cancers. Dr. Rosenberg and colleagues recently published a report in Nature Medicine that detailed findings on a new approach he developed using a modified form of ACT that led to the complete regression of breast cancer in a patient whose cancer was unresponsive to all other treatments. Though still experimental, the new approach is dependent on targeting mutations, giving it the potential to be used for the treatment of many kinds of cancer.  

“I’m honored to receive the Szent-Györgyi Prize, and to be in the company of the scientists who have been recognized with this award,” Dr. Rosenberg said. “We’re still learning about what immunotherapy can do for [patients with] cancer, and we’re very excited about the advances to come.”

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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