U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said a new Johns Hopkins cancer research initiative will likely produce the next generation of breakthroughs in cancer treatment.
The new institute will focus on immunotherapy, which involves training the body’s own defenses to attack cancer cells.
During a Tuesday appearance before doctors, researchers and medical students in Baltimore to launch the new Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, Biden predicted that the initiative would perfect new therapies and bring hope to millions of patients and their families.
Biden’s son, Beau, died of brain cancer last year. President Barack Obama earlier this year placed Biden in charge of a “moonshot” initiative to find a cure for cancer.
“I’m convinced that, because of the work of all of you and the progress you’ll make on cancer, we will re-instill in the American public the notion that anything is possible,” Biden told the crowd.
The new Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute is being launched with a $125 million gift — $50 million of which came from philanthropist and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, $50 million from Sidney Kimmel, the founder of Jones Apparel Group, and another $25 million from more than a dozen additional supporters, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Kimmel has donated $157 million to the existing Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Hopkins since 2001. Bloomberg, who graduated from the university in 1964, has contributed more than $1.2 billion to the university and health system, helping to fund a children’s hospital and the university’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, among other projects.
The vice president was joined by Gov. Larry Hogan — a cancer survivor who underwent chemotherapy, immunotherapy, surgery and other treatment methods, to fight non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma last year — Bloomberg, and other officials at the event.
“Ending cancer is a dream that we’ve all long held. Today, thanks to advances in technology, it is within our reach for the very first time,” Bloomberg said. “We now have the ability to cure cases of cancer that might have been hopeless even just a few short years ago.”
The field of immunotherapy was one of the reasons for those advances, he said.
For Dr. Drew Pardoll, professor of oncology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and director of the new institute, the “moonshot” of the 1960s is a great analogy for the race to advance immunotherapies.
“They had to bring together lots of different technologies to really move it forward,” said Pardoll, who holds over 50 patents and is a co-founder of six biotechnology companies. “For us, that means a combination of therapies.”
Doctors believe some immunotherapies may be most effective when combined with others. Some immunotherapy methods make sure immune system cells can detect and attack cancer cells, which can effectively camouflage themselves as normal cells; other methods bring large groups of immune cells to attack cancerous areas, according to Hopkins Medicine.
But since the practice is focused on using the body’s own defense system to fight tumors, immunotherapy doesn’t usually come with the unpleasant side effects of treatments like chemotherapy; instead, patients tend to feel good, said Dr. Elizabeth Jaffee, deputy director of the Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.
One goal of the new institute is to work with geneticists and other specialist to define cancers more by their genetic makeup than the tissue they attack, Jaffee said. Genetically similar cancers may respond to the same sorts of treatment no matter which part of the body they attack, she said.
The institute will lead clinical trials of immunotherapy techniques, many of which grew from ideas developed in Johns Hopkins laboratories. Among other areas, researchers will focus on why some patients respond to these techniques while others do not and on increasing the potency of immune cells, according to the institute.