Making Cures More Common: BIDMC Hosts 16th Annual Cancer Center Symposium

Written By: Jacqueline Mitchell Contact: Chloe Meck, cmeck@bilh.org

NOVEMBER 30, 2023

The intimate link between groundbreaking discoveries and their transformative impact on patient care was palpable at this year’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) Cancer Center Symposium. The 16th annual event, focused on targeted and immune-based cancer therapy, attracted more than 500 registrants from across the Longwood and Greater Boston area to the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center to share findings, exchange ideas and foster collaborations.

“We’re in a transformative time where the pace of basic discoveries has really accelerated, and at BIDMC we have had the great privilege to be part of—and sometimes on the forefront of—these discoveries,” said David Avigan, MD, Director of the BIDMC Cancer Center. “Today we celebrate basic, translational and clinical investigation in the fields of cancer biology and immuno-oncology. We hope that each of you will bring your own perspectives and inspiration to the mix. It is this communal effort that will ultimately help us accomplish our mission: to better the lives of patients with cancer through transformative science, pioneering therapies, and compassionate care accessible to all.”

“The Boston Public Health Commission put out a cancer report showing that while cancer rates are decreasing in our city, cancer still hits some communities harder than others,” said Boston Mayor Michelle Wu in videotaped welcoming remarks. “Whether you've been doing this work for decades or just starting out, you're the warriors we need in this fight. The science you're discussing today is vital, and the compassion you all bring to this work is what drives it. On behalf of myself and the entire city of Boston, thank you.”

During the morning session, focused on immunotherapy, BIDMC’s David McDermott, MD, Chief of the Division of Medical Oncology at the Cancer Center, gave an overview of the highs and lows of the last 30 years of immunotherapy research in the context of kidney cancer. He also provided a glimpse of where investigators are headed; exploring mechanisms of resistance, seeking new treatment targets and administering immunotherapy prior to performing surgery.

“If we work together, we can create a new treatment paradigm, not just for kidney cancer but other tumors, where treatment is based on an exploration of the tumor microenvironment profile and second-line treatment will become increasingly unnecessary because more patients will be living in remission on their way to being cured,” he said.

Avigan told the story of the multiple myeloma vaccine he pioneered with colleague Jacalyn Rosenblatt, MD, Deputy Director of the Cancer Immunotherapy Institute at BIDMC and Associate Chief, Division of Hematology & Hematologic Malignancies. Early phase clinical trials in acute leukemia and multiple myeloma have shown immunologic responses and potentially promising clinical results. In a first-of-its-kind effort, Avigan led a national personalized vaccine therapy trial involving 18 sites across the country in which more than 200 patients were enrolled and vaccine production was accomplished in a collaborative fashion The study demonstrated that vaccination elicited a sustained anti-tumor T cell response. Next, the scientists are looking toward combining the personalized vaccines with CAR T cell therapy, a method of engineering a patient’s own T cells to fight off cancer, which could work in concert with the vaccine to enhance its effect.

After the midday break, Dianne Silvestri, MD, read from her recently published book of poems, But I Still Have My Fingerprints, an account of her experiences after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2013. Silvestri held the position of Contact Dermatitis Program Director at UMass Chan Medical School until her diagnosis interrupted her career in 2013. As she went through chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant at BIDMC, she focused her efforts on her poetry, work that has been recognized by prestigious poetry journals and awards.

The afternoon session focused on cancer genetics. BIDMC’s Richard Cummings, PhD, the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Surgery and Chief of the Division of Surgical Sciences at BIDMC, discussed using glycoproteins—specific sugar molecules secreted by cancer cells—as targets for cancer detection and immunotherapy. Wenyi Wei, PhD, a professor of pathology at BIDMC, described how he and colleagues borrowed an approach from optogenetics to design a brand new precision medicine tool for treating cancer and other diseases. Focusing on the ubiquitin pathway—a quality control system that plays a role in protein degradation in cells—Wei and colleagues designed and synthesized a light-responsive “caging” molecule that remains inert in darkness and becomes active in the presence of UV light. In this way, the team can selectively degrade protein targets with extreme accuracy. Asking why two patients with colon cancer can have biopsies that look so much alike, but can have vastly different outcomes, Michael Roehrl, MD, PhD, MBA, Chief of Pathology at BIDMC, discussed the importance of genomics and proteomics to the future of personalized cancer care.

Other speakers included Irene Ghobrial, MD, Senior Vice President for Experimental Therapies, Director, Center for Early Detection and Interception - Blood cancers, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School; Sylvia Formenti, MD, Professor and Chairman, Department of Radiation Oncology, Associate Director for Translational Research, Meyer Cancer Center, Weill Cornell Medicine; Marcella Maus, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Director of Cellular Immunotherapy, Massachusetts General Hospital; Katerina Politi, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Pathology, Co- leader, Cancer Signaling Networks, Scientific Director, Center for Thoracic Cancers, Yale School of Medicine & Yale Cancer Center; Ben Stanger, MD, PhD, Hannah Wise, Professor in Cancer Research, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania.

Closing out the day, George Daley, MD, PhD, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Harvard University, gave voice to the tangible connection between the scientists in the room and the people whose lives their work affects.

“Because I'm intimately familiar with the incredible promise of our community, let me say that I feel that immense responsibility to our patients,” he said. “We are compelled by our patients to continue to do extraordinary clinical and translational research and provide compassionate care, it’s something of a sacred pact we make with our patients.”

About Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a leading academic medical center, where extraordinary care is supported by high-quality education and research. BIDMC is a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and consistently ranks as a national leader among independent hospitals in National Institutes of Health funding. BIDMC is the official hospital of the Boston Red Sox.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a part of Beth Israel Lahey Health, a health care system that brings together academic medical centers and teaching hospitals, community and specialty hospitals, more than 4,800 physicians and 38,000 employees in a shared mission to expand access to great care and advance the science and practice of medicine through groundbreaking research and education.