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Funded by philanthropy, new Schwartz Family Facility takes leading cancer vaccine program to next level
When it comes to the complex process of producing therapeutic cancer vaccines, the expression "location is everything" takes on special meaning. Ensuring the quality and consistency of any pharmaceutical product that will be used for testing in large numbers of human patients requires a specialized "clean" and controlled environment. The lifesaving cancer vaccines created at BIDMC's new Immunotherapy Institute are no exception. That's why the recent launch of the Randi and Brian Schwartz Family Cancer Immunotherapy and Cell Manipulation Facility, which brings this critical workspace to reality, is so auspicious. "This is a pivotal moment for the field of immunotherapy," says David Avigan, M.D., co-director of the Immunotherapy Institute and executive director of the Schwartz Family Facility. "We are seeing significant results in our work, and the potential is very exciting. This incredible facility truly gives us the right place at the right time."
Avigan's team has played a pivotal role in the development of cell-based immunotherapy as a potent strategy to harness the body's own natural defenses to effectively target cancer cells. In close collaboration with Jacalyn Rosenblatt, M.D., and Dina Stroopinsky, Ph.D., respectively medical director and scientific director of the Schwartz Family Facility, they developed a personalized cancer vaccine by combining the patient's own tumor cells with potent teachers of the immune system known as dendritic cells. This fused-cell strategy has yielded dramatic results in patients with blood cancers; in early studies, the vaccine treatment has doubled the number of patients with multiple myeloma who achieve remission after primary therapy and has led to durable remission in more than 70 percent of patients with acute myeloid leukemia—a striking improvement over standard therapies. The Schwartz Family Facility will enable these researchers to capitalize on the promise of this work, allowing them to study vaccines in national clinical trials, combine their vaccines with other innovative treatments like CAR T-cells to maximize results, and engage in scientific collaboration with investigators around the world including supervising and teaching vaccine generation. "This facility is enhancing our ability to develop personalized immune-based treatments for patients and combine these efforts with many other strategies for maximum impact," says Avigan. "We wouldn't have opened this facility nearly as quickly without support from private donors like Randi and Brian who understand its vital importance."
Although not the recipient of a cancer vaccine herself, Randi Schwartz experienced firsthand Avigan's compassionate and creative approach as a physician–scientist and quickly recognized its worth. Diagnosed with multiple myeloma, Schwartz did extensive research on centers nationwide specializing in its treatment. When a family friend introduced her to Avigan, the decision where to get her care was sealed. "I felt a deep personal connection to David and BIDMC," says Schwartz, who traveled back and forth to Boston from her home in Florida for treatment. "I saw immediately that he was a comprehensive, thoughtful, intelligent person, who was incredibly present and never rushed. For me, that was an integral part of the type of care I was seeking." When she learned of Avigan's efforts to develop a Good Manufacturing Practice facility at BIDMC and its important role in expanding his team's research to impact more patients like her, she was determined to help. The lead gift to name the new space from Schwartz and her husband, Brian—along with numerous gifts from a wide range of donors similarly drawn to the value of the work of Avigan's team was instrumental in bringing it to fruition. Now the 3,400-square-foot suite will serve as the main site for an unprecedented Phase 3 cancer vaccine trial with 17 clinical centers nationwide, among many other promising therapeutic ventures. "Cancers like multiple myeloma are smart diseases," says Schwartz. "It will take innovative thinking and many different approaches to continue finding more effective treatments, and ultimately cures. Someone has to do that work, and David has the foresight and collaborative nature to make those goals a reality."
We wouldn't have opened this facility nearly as quickly without support from private donors like Randi and Brian who understand its vital importance.
David Avigan, M.D.
Co-Director, Immunotherapy Institute
Executive Director, Schwartz Family Facility