Thomas Gajewski, MD, PhD, has been awarded an Outstanding Investigator Award by the National Cancer Institute.
Thomas Gajewski, MD, PhD
Thomas Gajewski, MD, PhD, has been awarded an Outstanding Investigator Award (OIA) by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The award guarantees $600,000 in direct costs per year for 7 years.
A pioneer in the field of immunotherapy, Gajewski is a professor in the Department of Medicine and the Ben Mayer Cancer Institute at the University of Chicago and director of the immunology and cancer program at the University of Chicago Medicine.
The OIA supports scientists who demonstrate remarkable productivity in cancer research. Investigators are encouraged to use the 7 years of financial stability to take on long-term projects with significant potential.
“The Outstanding Investigator Award pulls together a number of separate but related projects from our lab and blends them into one, massive, cohesive undertaking,” Gajewski said. “Such funding is necessary for our lab and many others to make continual progress toward preventing and treating cancer using the host immune system. It inspires us to be even more aggressive, to move the field forward as broadly as we can.”
Gajewski and his team study new ways to overcome a tumor’s ability to resist immunotherapy, with a focus on drugs that help the immune system gain access to tumor sites.
“We have treated a large number of melanoma patients using immunotherapies, and now we have a great deal of data about the interactions between a patient’s tumors and his or her immune system.” Gajewski said. “We know who responded to treatment and who didn’t. Now we’re cataloguing genetic clues that correlate with response versus resistance. This not only should help us predict who is most likely to benefit, but more importantly identify new therapies to overcome resistance and expand efficacy.”
His team is also looking at connections between the gut microbiota and the immune system’s response to cancer. In 2015, Gajewski’s laboratory showed that a particular strain of bacteria in the digestive tracts of mice could stimulate the immune system to attack tumor cells. They are now refining this approach and analyzing a large cohort of human samples.
Additionally, the team is investigating a protein complex known as Stimulator of Interferon Genes (STING), which plays a crucial role in detecting cells in which the DNA is in the wrong place, within the cell but outside the nucleus. In 2014, Gajewski’s laboratory showed how the STING pathway signals the body’s innate immune system to attack such tumor cells.
“We are now working with a small molecule drug that appears to trigger this response when injected directly into a tumor,” he said. Clinical testing is underway.