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Highlights of 2020: PICI’s Progress in Cancer Immunotherapy and Beyond

Advancements in CRISPR technology, cancer vaccines, a new brain tumor program, COVID-19 and more

Despite the pandemic, cancer didn’t stop — and neither did we. Working hand-in-hand with our researchers, partners, patients and generous donors, the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy fostered scientific breakthroughs in 2020.

Smarter Treatments for Patients
Our discovery could unlock better personalized treatments to destroy cancer

With the Cancer Research Institute and Sage Bionetworks, we created a consortium of scientists from 36 top research groups in academia, nonprofit and industry. The Tumor Neoantigen Selection Alliance (TESLA) uncovered a data model that can predict 75% of effective neoantigens – mutant proteins that grow only on cancer and not healthy tissues – and eliminate 98% of ineffective neoantigens in melanoma and lung cancer. Findings published in Cell could advance personalized cancer therapies, from cancer vaccines to cell therapy.

We made progress using CRISPR gene-editing technology in humans

In February of 2020, PICI scientists at the University of Pennsylvania published findings in Science from our SINATRA trial. We applied CRISPR gene-editing to cell therapy and showed that genetically-edited immune cells could persist, thrive and function long after a cancer patient received them. Our work on the SINATRA trial marked the first-ever sanctioned investigational use of multiple edits to the human genome. We hope to use this breakthrough to find a novel, safe way to outsmart solid tumors. and to improve future cell therapies.

We created a first-of-its-kind data analysis engine for scientific discovery

PICI scientists built a single database that can “see” emerging connections between clinical trials by performing advanced analysis. With CANDEL at our data-scientists’ fingertips, we can visualize data, run machine learning models and draw insights in seconds. This means we can create innovative treatment combinations, identify which patients will benefit from which treatments and predict adverse events to manage them better.

We built a smarter plan of action against cancer’s resistance to immunotherapy

By aggregating and integrating data generated from our own and others’ studies, we can map out cancer’s trends and understand why certain patients do not benefit from immunotherapy. Our program REVIVE, launched this year, helps us design smarter, science-driven clinical trials to more quickly guide effective treatments for patients.

A Spotlight on Superheroes in White Coats

In 2020, our cancer research heroes received well-deserved recognition from major medical research organizations.

Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, director of the Tumor Immunology Program and PICI director at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCLA, won the 2020 ESMO Award for Translational Research for his work in malignant melanoma, focusing on gene-engineered T-cells, PD-1 blockade and BRAF targeted therapies.


Lisa Butterfield, PhD

Lisa Butterfield, PhD, vice president of research and development at PICI, was honored with the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC) Visionary Legacy Award in recognition of her ingenuity, dedication and leadership in the field of immunotherapy.


Jedd Wolchok, MD, PhD, chief of Immuno-Oncology Service and PICI director at Memorial Sloan Kettering, received the 2020 AACR-Joseph H. Burchenal Award for outstanding achievement in clinical cancer research.

We Harnessed Collaboration to Accelerate The Entire Field
We laid a critical foundation for cancer immunotherapy research

In 2020, we addressed a significant barrier in cancer immunotherapy: a lack of uniform clinical definitions that scientists can use to determine a patient’s resistance to immunotherapy. The group, assembled by the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer, published these definitions in the Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer on April 1. This is the first time a task force with representation across the field has come together to tackle this critical problem.

“When new drugs are tested in studies that implement our definitions… it will be easier to reliably understand the effects of these novel agents.” – co-author Roberta Zappasodi, PhD, a Parker Bridge Fellow and Research Associate at Memorial Sloan Kettering. 

Cancer Immunologists StepPED Up DURING COVID-19
We published guidance on treating cancer patients with immunotherapy during the pandemic

Are immune checkpoint inhibitors safe for cancer patients in the era of COVID-19? We published guidance with an international group of clinicians. The answer, in short: likely, but cautiously.

We further understood COVID with a tool originally created for cancer

Our Informatics team joined forces with researchers from UCLA to repurpose a predictive algorithm, originally used to design cancer vaccines, to predict the COVID-19 antigens that would be presented for most known HLA types around the world (9,360 of them!). This data set is public. A review was published in Nature Reviews Immunology.

We explored treatments for COVID

We united with experts across the field, brought together by the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer, to shed light on the usage of IL-6 targeting therapies to treat COVID-19 patients with severe respiratory distress.

Bold Research, Fueled


We are unlocking the promise of immunotherapy for brain cancer

Our Brain Tumor Program, launched this year with the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy and Cancer Research Institute, tackles one of the toughest disease sites. The program includes two projects: one is aimed at treating Diffuse Midline Gliomas (DMG) in children, which currently has no effective treatment option. The other seeks to identify new targets for the treatment of pediatric and adult aggressive brain tumors. The findings could forge a path to a clinical trial that not only brings new options for brain tumor patients but also unlocks new immunotherapies for other cancer types as well.

We’ve been busy. We forged scientific collaborations across our network and accelerated our understanding of cancer biology. We tested experimental treatments in multi-center clinical trials. And we built tools to power smarter, better approaches to treating cancer for the entire field. But we aren’t done until cancer is finished.

As we round into our fifth anniversary in 2021, we will build upon our wins (and losses). Every data point counts. Unwavering and steadfast, we will transform ideas into treatments. Because patients can’t wait.

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Donate or partner with us to help us propel this life-saving work. Only our collective effort can make cancer curable.