Finding Early Female Role Models Helped Shape a Notable Career in Oncology

Elizabeth M. Jaffee, MD

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Elizabeth M. Jaffee, MD, Deputy Director of The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, Baltimore, was born in Brooklyn, New York, in a place and time she found exhilarating during her early years. “We didn’t have a lot of money—actually, we were poor. But I had a lot of freedom walking around the city. It was a time when you could still do that as a child. There was always something to see; the human activity on the streets was endless. We did move out to the suburbs, to Huntington, Long Island, when I was in middle school, but I have good memories of living in Brooklyn. It was a lively and interesting place for a kid,” said Dr. Jaffee.

She continued: “I started reading books, and it was also a time when we were in this race with the Soviets for the first landing on the moon. So, as a child growing up, there was a lot of science being discussed. And I was looking for female role models. There were not a lot of women in science you could look to, but obviously one was Marie Curie. In fourth grade, I read her biography, which I found inspirational. She identified radon and is the mother of radiation oncology. That was a lasting memory for me as I continued to pursue more scientific interests. I also had a female math teacher who encouraged me, which pushed me toward science.”



Deputy Director, The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, Baltimore


MD, New York Medical College


“It all begins with passion. It might take you longer than expected to find what truly drives you, keeps you up at night with excitement, but it will come.”

Dr. Jaffee added: “I think the first time I thought about cancer was in fourth grade. We had a very large family, and one of my uncles—my grandfather’s brother named Happy—developed lung cancer and died. I was very close with the whole family, and his death had a tremendous impact on me. I couldn’t believe someone with the name Happy could die of cancer.”

Early Female Mentors

According to Dr. Jaffee, a female high school chemistry teacher also encouraged her passion for science. “I was thinking about a career in oncology but decided I was probably going to be a biochemistry major. I wanted to go to a small school and ended up at Brandeis University, which had one of the top biochemistry programs in the country. It was the best move I could have made, because I was very shy and needed role models and encouragement. These classes were small, 20 to 30 students, so that encouraged interaction in the classroom. To this day, I think it’s what really pushed me toward medicine and research,” said Dr. Jaffee.

At Brandeis, Dr. Jaffee attended a lecture by Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, MD, on tumor viruses and genetic material, which sparked her interest in immunology. “That lecture got me thinking that if the immune system can see a virus, why can’t we activate it to fight cancer? This was 1977, so it was very early in our understanding of the immune system. But that’s when I began formulating my direction in medicine,” she said.

In 1981, Dr. Jaffee graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University and then enrolled in New York Medical College. “I married my high school sweetheart, Frederick Brancati, and he went to medical school at Columbia, so we were together. It turned out to be a good thing because his father got sick during our first year, so we were able to be close to his family, who were also on Long Island,” she said.

“At that point, I started loving clinical medicine. In 1983, we were in the clinics seeing patients who were very sick with a new virus, which turned out to be AIDS. Nobody understood it fully, except that it was occurring in mostly gay populations and among IV drug abusers, so it seemed to be transmitted through either blood or other close contact mechanisms. It was a horrible time, of course, but also an exciting time to be a medical student. One of my attending hospitals was in the West Village, another one was in Harlem, and so I was taking care of a wide range of patients, and I just loved it,” said Dr. Jaffee. “I started thinking, maybe I’m going to work more on the clinical side. I wasn’t quite sure, but I hadn’t done any research since college, and the AIDS epidemic was eye-opening.”

Time for a Change

Despite the intriguing clinical challenges of being at the epicenter of the AIDS crisis, Dr. Jaffee and her husband decided they needed a more diverse medical experience, and they were fortunate to both match at the University of Pittsburgh. “Pittsburgh turned out to be a great place. There was no couples match, but the chairman of medicine, Jerry Levy, was married to a doctor, so he tried to give couples an opportunity to at least have their vacation time together. Think about it—in those days, that was all we could ask for. But he also had this program that was a National Institutes of Health–funded year of research after residency, which really attracted me to that program,” she said.

“Now we had a Veterans Affairs hospital and a university hospital, so we got a wide range of clinical experiences. Then I did a year of research with Dr. John Kirkwood, who was my first real mentor in cancer immunology. He was so passionate that it was hard for me not to want to do cancer immunology, and it fit with what I was thinking. So, I had met this well-known researcher who was doing exactly what I wanted to do, and he was helpful in steering me toward Johns Hopkins for a fellowship,” said Dr. Jaffee.

In 1992, Dr. Jaffee and her husband joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins, and as they say, the rest is history. “In the mid to late 1980s, a lot was happening in cancer immunology. For one, PCR [polymerase chain reaction] was developed, so it’s the first time you could look at gene expression rapidly. And we were learning about T cells and how dendritic cells could be isolated with a cytokine called granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor [GM-CSF], which my group at Hopkins and a group at Dana-Farber and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working together, used to develop a genetically engineered tumor vaccine,” she recounted.

“So, I went from thinking about how the immune system could be powered to fight cancer, working with John Kirkwood, to then at Hopkins trying to figure out how to genetically engineer human tumor cells to express different cytokines. Our collaborative mouse work identified GM-CSF as the cytokine that was most important for inducing a systemic T-cell response. We found that dendritic cells were being recruited—that viral proteins were processed and presented to T cells through dendritic cells—which goes along with what was being shown for viral diseases. This was in the early 1990s, and we quickly went into the clinics with this approach,” said Dr. Jaffee.

Seminal Work in Renal Cell Cancer

Working with urologic surgeon Fray Marshall, Dr. Jaffee developed a human vaccine for renal cell carcinoma. “I would go to the OR, and Fray would say, ‘This looks like a lot of tumor. I need this piece. Take it to the lab.’ Then after the surgery, he’d come take a look at it. I was having fun, but we were making serious progress. So that was the start of this vaccine approach. We tested it for the first time in patients with metastatic renal cancer, and we learned a lot from that. We had a couple of patients who had some response, but I think we mostly learned a little bit more about the immune system and started realizing vaccines may work to activate a T-cell response,” said Dr. Jaffee.

Asked what initiated her interest in pancreatic cancer, for which she has completed multiple studies with an allogeneic tumor vaccine, Dr. Jaffee responded: “I started working in the mid-1990s on pancreatic cancer, mostly because Bert Vogelstein offered me a position as an investigator to develop a vaccine for pancreatic cancer in the first GI SPORE [Specialized Program of Research Excellence], which was in 1994. John Cameron, our surgeon who performed more Whipple procedures than anybody else, came to me and said, ‘We need you, Liz, because I’ve done everything I can with surgery.’ To me, it was a sign, because when I was a resident, my father’s brother got pancreatic cancer and died in 3 months. That really started my career in pancreatic cancer immunotherapy. It was exciting because I was working with Bert Vogelstein and John Cameron, and a host of other brilliant scientists, surgeons, and pathologists.”

Best of All Worlds at Hopkins

Dr. Jaffee noted that she’d had several offers for leadership roles at other institutions, but none that could persuade her to leave Johns Hopkins. “In the end, there were two things that kept me here,” she said. “First were the amazing students and postdocs who were coming to work with me, and the other were my colleagues. From day one, when I showed up here as a fellow, I could call anyone. I called one of our Nobel Prize winners when I needed a reagent. I wanted just to talk with his administrator and his lab manager, and he called me back within 10 minutes and wanted to know all about my research. This was Dr. Dan Nathans, who won the Nobel Prize in 1978 for the discovery of restriction enzymes and their application in restriction mapping. It was my first experience talking to a Nobel Prize winner, and I was only a fellow, and he was calling me Dr. Jaffee, so I’d say, ‘No, no, no. Call me Liz.’ That’s just the way it is here. It’s simply a great place to work and develop partnerships.”

Weekly Work Routine

Asked for a window into her work schedule, Dr. Jaffee explained: “When not traveling, I’m typically in meetings from 8:00 AM until 6:00 PM. I meet with students about their research, with postdocs, with early career faculty, and I also have group meetings because we have a lot of interactions among projects. Probably about 20% of my time is spent in my role as Deputy Director. Some of it is a lot of fun because I meet different people throughout the institution, talking about new projects, bringing people into different areas of research, connecting people. I also do a fair bit of mentoring—not only within my own team, but I mentor a lot of young faculty and senior faculty who need guidance. I guess I have a few years on me now, so they look at me as someone who may have a bit more experience in navigating not only the system, but their careers.”

Dr. Jaffee continued: “I’d say about 5% of my workweek is dealing with some of the administrative issues that are always present. I oversee a lot of the translational processes. But there’s a mixed bag of responsibilities in which anything can come up. For instance, most recently, we had an infestation of mites in the mouse house, and I had to organize people to make sure they handled that. So, I have a busy and diverse work schedule, which eventually I’d like to tailor so I could do more translational research.”

Dr. Jaffee is a Past President of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). She has served on a number of committees at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), including her role as Co-Chair of the Biden Moonshot Blue Ribbon Panel, which identified high impact research priorities for the NCI. She currently serves as Chief Medical Advisor to the Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research. She is the inaugural Director of the Convergence Institute for Integrating Technologies and Computational Sciences at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Jaffee is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, a Fellow of the American College of Physicians, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Fellow of the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer Academy of Immuno-Oncology and a Fellow of the AACR Academy. Most recently, she was appointed Chair of President Biden’s Cancer Panel.

Decompression Time

What does a busy oncology leader do to decompress? “I love to hike. I do that on weekends. I get out very early in the morning. I live on the water, and although it’s not a particularly challenging hike, it’s beautiful, just to clear my mind, just to think. I have twin daughters, Francesca and Madelana, who are 26, and one of them is into hiking. So, typically, our vacations are hiking vacations. Most recently, we went to Patagonia, which is one of the most remote and beautiful places on Earth. It was truly transporting. So, between family and hiking, I find a way to center myself, which helps me do a better job in my career, too.”

What advice would Dr. Jaffee give to young female physicians seeking pathways like hers? “My biggest advice is to follow your passions and find the right mentors who can help guide you—not tell you what to do but guide you. One mentor does not fit all your needs. There can be many mentors, and they don’t have to be local. I’ve mentioned several mentors who are nationally known, but the most important thing is the connection you make with people who know you on a deeper level and can give you the best guidance possible,” she said.

“It all begins with passion. It might take you longer than expected to find what truly drives you, keeps you up at night with excitement, but it will come. Oncology is full of exciting opportunities, and there is no better time to enter the field than now.”