Cancer research pioneer Carl June delivers first J. David Allen Keynote Lecture
The Regenerative Engineering and Medicine (REM) research center isn’t a place. It’s more like glue with an agenda, binding together three research institutions – Emory University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Georgia – and keeping them focused on the same basic target: enhancing the body’s ability to harness its own potential to heal, or regenerate.
“The goal is to create an infrastructure for three institutions in Georgia – Emory, Georgia Tech, and the University of Georgia – to work together to develop basic research collaborations in regenerative medicine,” Ned Waller told a packed room in the Miller-Ward Alumni House at Emory University for the REM’s annual retreat, on May 8.
“The goal is to bring people together and see how this program can continue to initiate and accelerate collaborations across our institutions,” added Waller, the co-director of REM from Emory.
The audience then received a fitting infusion of research and inspiration from cell therapy pioneer Carl June, who provided the highlight of the day, delivering the first-ever Dr. J. David Allen Keynote Lecture. June is the pioneering researcher who led development of the nation’s first personalized cellular therapy for cancer – last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Kymriah(TM) (formerly CTL019), a groundbreaking chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR T) therapy which uses a patient’s own T cells to fight cancer.
He shared the story of his work in engineering a person’s own immune system to cure cancer, and it was exactly what REM researchers needed to hear at this gathering.
“Translational Medicine was a focus of this year’s retreat and is the next logical step for REM, working to move therapies from research to development and into the clinics,” said Steve Stice, the REM co-director from the University of Georgia (UGA), where he’s established himself as one of the world’s leading stem cell researchers.
June took his audience on a journey through what he called, “the complexity of the tumor microenvironment, to really solve the issues of human cancer.” And there wasn’t an empty seat in the room.
“I thought the number of new participants who were drawn to the Allen lecture was a particular highlight of this year’s retreat,” noted Johnna Temenoff, Petit Institute researcher and co-director of REM from Georgia Tech.
Speaking softly to the crowded room, June presented a number of slides to illustrate the story of his research.
“This is probably the most famous sight you will see at any cancer-immunology meeting now,” he said, presenting a rendering of the familiar cancer-immunity cycle, divided into seven major steps (circles on a screen, directed by clockwise arrows, beginning with the release of cancer cell antigens and ending with the killing of cancer cells).
June, named to the TIME 100 (the magazine’s list of the most influential people in the world) introduced his audience to the first patient to receive the CAR T-cell therapy, in 2010, Bill Ludwig, a retired corrections officer in New Jersey who was battling a lethal leukemia before the therapy from Penn actually cured him. The audience laughed as June presented a before and after photo of Ludwig, from 2010 and 2017.
In the after photo, he looks very sick as he begins the trial. In the after photo, he’s brimming with joy, wearing a t-shirt that says, “The clouds went away and there was no leukemia,” and holding up a handwritten sign that says, “I was patient No. 1 of CART-19 and all I got was this t-shirt and remission.”
In 2012, June and his team treated the first pediatric patient, Emily Whitehead, who has been cancer free for years. The technology was licensed to Novartis, in exchange for financial support, just six months after Emily’s trial began.
Part of the deal was support for a new on-campus cell manufacturing facility at Penn, something similar to what is happening at Georgia Tech, where the NSF Engineering Research Center for Cell Manufacturing (CMaT) is headquartered. “I applaud what you’re doing here,” June told the audience, referring to the REM state-wide partnership, including CMaT.
Though June was the main attraction at this year’s retreat, there was another honored guest – philanthropist J. David Allen, the retired oral surgeon whose generosity created the new annual lecture, as well as the J. David Allen Grant.
“Two years ago, Dr. J. David Allen made a very generous gift to accelerate collaboration, stimulate innovation, and enhance the reputation of Georgia’s three foremost research institutions,” noted Mike Cassidy, president and CEO of the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA), through which the grant is administered.
“Thank you for your gracious gift,” Cassidy said to Allen, who stood to be recognized. “It’s a source of inspiration, creating ripples that will result in a far-reaching impact that we can only imagine.”
The Allen gift to GRA (about $1 million) is being disbursed over a 10-year period in the form of seed grants, and is designed to bolster the partnership between the three universities – each seed grant team must have investigators from each institution. The first awardee is comprised of Todd Sulchek (Georgia Tech), Jim Lauderdale (UGA), and Young-sup Yoon (Emory). Following June’s presentation, Sulchek and Lauderdale took turns presenting their joint research.
Waller reminded the audience to check out the research posters from REM seed grant winners that were on display in the Miller-Ward Alumni House, and emphasized the influence and heft of REM to this point – the development of 17 biotech start-up companies, nearly $121 million in total funds granted to REM’s network of more than 170 faculty members.
Additionally, there were several success stories culled from the ranks of REM seed grants (which require interdisciplinary teams from at least two of the member universities). Muna Qayed of Emory, Lohitash Karumbaiah of UGA, and Temenoff all made presentations of their research, which has been supported by the REM seed grant program.
Officially dubbed the “Georgia Partners in Regenerative Medicine” seed grant, the deadline for submission of proposals for the 2018-2019 cycle is July 9. Winners will be announced in August.
“The impact of these seed grants on building the scientific community in our region cannot be over-emphasized,” said Temenoff, who shared the progress, novel directions, and new collaborations that have stemmed from her original REM seed grant project (“Biomaterials-based Strategies to Modulate Cathespin Activity and Promote Healing of Tendon Overuse Injuries”).
“Looking forward, we want to continue to bring new researchers into REM, to continue building a vibrant forum for scientific exchange,” Temenoff added. “The recent emphasis on cell therapies within the state provides a new means to include even more scientists in the area of basic, applied immunology, translational medicine, and biologics manufacturing within REM.”