Skip to content
Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy
Search Close

Behind the Breakthrough: An Interview with Carl June, the Father of CAR T-Cell Therapy

Carl June, MD, the pioneering oncologist and scientist who’s been called the “Father of CAR T-cell therapy,” recently received the prestigious Breakthrough Prize – one of the world’s largest scientific prizes – for his groundbreaking work developing this revolutionary cancer treatment. As the Director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy (PICI) Center at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. June has been at the forefront of harnessing the power of engineered immune cells. We caught up with the luminary scientist for an exclusive inside look at his decades-long quest to transform how we combat cancer, his advice for early career scientists and the pivotal role PICI plays in advancing the field.

How did it feel when you learned about the Breakthrough Prize?
Dr. June: “I am deeply honored to be recognized with the Breakthrough Prize along with Michel Sadelain for our work in CAR T-cell therapy. However, it’s important to emphasize that this groundbreaking achievement was not the effort of two individuals, but the culmination of years of hard work by a dedicated team of scientists, researchers and clinicians. When I first heard the news, I was filled with gratitude for the brilliant minds and compassionate hearts that have been a part of this journey – from the early days of conceptualizing and experimenting to the clinicians delivering this innovative treatment to patients.

I want to extend my sincerest thanks to my colleagues, the patients who participated in our trials, their families and the broader scientific community who have shared in the vision that immunotherapy could change the face of cancer treatment. The Breakthrough Prize not only honors our past achievements but also shines a light on the potential for future innovations in the fight against cancer. Together, I am confident we will continue to advance the field and bring hope to those affected by this disease.”

When did you first have the key insight that sparked the idea of engineering a patient’s own immune cells to treat their cancer?
Dr. June: “Oddly enough, it was when we were doing trials with CAR T cells in HIV patients, and we found that genetically modified T cells could persist for years in the patients. I had always thought that the cells would die or be rejected.”

We’ve come a long way, but what key challenges remain in improving CAR T-cell therapies and extending them to more cancer types?
Dr. June: “The main scientific challenge is overcoming T cell exhaustion and dysfunction in solid tumors. The main engineering challenge will be to overcome manufacturing challenges for many more patients.”

As PICI’s Center Director at Penn, what areas did their funding allow you to push forward?
Dr. June: “2024 has emerged as a landmark year for deploying CAR T cells against glioblastoma. The progress at PICI, City of Hope and MGH was tremendously encouraging.”

What advice would you give to early career researchers looking to make a major impact in cancer research like you have?
Dr. June: “Embarking on a career in cancer research is a noble and challenging journey that requires dedication, curiosity, and resilience. If you’re seeking to make a significant impact in the field, the first piece of advice I would offer is to cultivate a deep passion for understanding the science behind cancer. This passion will be your guiding light through the inevitable ups and downs of research.

Secondly, embrace collaboration. No single person can tackle the complexities of cancer alone. Building a network of diverse collaborators brings together different perspectives, skills and resources, all of which are critical to driving innovation. Always be open to learning from others, including mentors, peers and even those outside your immediate field.

Thirdly, get lucky…”

This year has seen many prestigious honors. What has PICI’s backing meant?
Dr. June: “I am delighted to see this level of recognition for the field of cell therapy.”

In your view, what impact has PICI had on the field as a whole?
Dr. June: “PICI has moved the needle in cancer research by accelerating collaborative research.”

Can you give an example of how PICI enabled groundbreaking research collaborations?
Dr. June: “One concrete example is that PICI enabled our collaborative trial with Stanford to conduct the first pilot trial of multiplex human genome editing. “

How would you describe the PICI Scientific Retreats?
Dr. June: “The best meetings I attend every year!”

Cross-disciplinary collaboration is foundational to major breakthroughs in the complex field of cancer immunotherapy. PICI proudly supports pioneers, like Dr. June, who are transforming science and medicine, while also nurturing the next generation of innovators charting new frontiers.

A screening of “Of Medicine and Miracles.” The movie follows the work of Carl June, MD, and the story of Emily Whitehead, the first child to receive CAR T-cell therapy.

As we congratulate Dr. June on his Breakthrough Prize recognizing decades of game-changing contributions, we invite you to experience his remarkable journey in the PICI-funded documentary “Of Medicine and Miracles.” This powerful film, produced by PICI Founder and Chairman Sean Parker, provides an inside look at how pioneering ideas translate into reality-shifting immunotherapies that can save patients’ lives.

Watch the film: 

Learn more about another award recently won by Dr. June, the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize, here.