Harvard’s High-Impact Cancer Research Program Creates a Global Network of Experts to Contribute to Advances in the Field
In recent years, researchers have made great strides in understanding the etiology of cancer, including the role genetics and environmental factors play in its development. This has led to earlier diagnoses, more effective treatment approaches, and preventative strategies that are saving lives. In fact, a new report released by the American Cancer Society reveals that the cancer death rate in the United States has declined by 27 percent over the past 25 years. But while strides against cancer continue to progress at a rapid pace, one obstacle many researchers face is limited funding to support their efforts.
Bridging the Science and Business Sectors
Harvard Medical School’s High-Impact Cancer Research program strives to bridge the gap that exists between the science and business sectors when it comes to cancer research, creating a global network of experts.
This postgraduate certificate program brings together high-level researchers, physicians, top-flight venture capitalists, policymakers, and others from around the world with a professional interest in the cancer field to learn a common language. This unique approach can lead to important collaborations to further high-impact cancer research, according to Ed Harlow, PhD, Ludwig Professor of Cancer Education and Research, Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, Special Assistant to the Director National Cancer Institute. Dr. Harlow is one of three co-chairs of the Harvard program.
The other program co-chairs include Peter M. Howley, M.D., Shattuck Professor of Pathological Anatomy, Department of Immunology at Harvard Medical School, and George Demetri, MD, Professor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School, who also serves as Associate Director of Clinical Sciences at Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, Director of the Ludwig Center at Harvard, and Senior Vice President for Experimental Therapeutics at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
The wide range of expertise provided by all three chair members, coupled with the experience provided by other expert faculty members, ensures program participants get a broad overview of the evolution of cancer, as well as an in-depth understanding of new ways to activate the immune system to combat cancer, or even prevent it.
In fact, Dr. Harlow points out that students in the program benefit from hearing directly from leaders in the field, who share details about the latest efforts to reprogram the immune system’s response to cancer cells at the molecular and cellular levels.
The Latest Advances in Immuno-oncology
One particularly promising development in the therapeutic area is immune system checkpoint inhibitors. In layman’s terms, these are drugs that help the immune system find cancer cells that are trying to hide, and they help the body launch a full-scale attack against them.
Another significant advance against cancer explored during the program is engineered T-cell therapy, a process that removes the T-cells (the cells that fight back against invaders such as cancer) from a patient’s body and genetically reprograms them to multiply. They are then injected back into the body to fight cancer cells.
Both of these treatments are having a dramatic impact on many types of cancers, and the hope is that such therapies will continue to evolve to treat more tumor profiles in the near future.
Dr. Demetri points out that another significant approach that involves the immune system is the use of vaccines. For instance, the HPV vaccine protects people against the human papilloma virus, which causes a variety of cancers including cervical and oropharyngeal cancers. Other vaccines are being developed to promote the formation of antibodies for treating certain cancers. But while vaccines are preventing some cancers, he points out that this doesn’t work for all of them. This makes it important to gain a deeper understanding of what makes a vaccine effective—or not effective—for different tumor profiles. In addition, the cost of vaccines is prohibitive for some countries, so there is still a need to find new ways to make them more accessible on a global level.
Searching for a Cancer Cure
A key takeaway for students is the fact that, despite all of the progress being made against cancer, there is not yet a universal cure on the horizon. “It’s not as simple as ‘fix one gene and cancer goes away,’” Dr. Demetri explains. “We won’t have one big day where all cancer is cured. But we will get rid of the fear,” he says. In fact, he predicts that in the future, most cancers will be able to be effectively treated.
In the meantime, he says that researchers need to continue to work toward this vision, using all of the research that exists to make their efforts more effective. “Precision medicine is a little about DNA and a lot about how we understand the immune system,” Dr. Demetri says.
“We can’t predict when the next scientist will have that eureka moment,” he says. But he adds that by exposing people to the latest advances in high-impact research, more progress can be made that can lead to important developments in the future.
Advancing the Fight Against Cancer
This premise clearly illustrates the benefits of participating in Harvard’s program. “Whether you are a physician interested in developing new drugs who wants to know what a research study looks like, or whether you want to start a business plan or grant proposal, we are looking for people who want to make a contribution to advancing progress against cancer,” Dr. Demetri says.
For instance, he explains, “One of our program graduates was a young oncologist with the European Medicines Agency (EMA) [the European equivalent of the FDA]. Now, he evaluates whether the agency should approve new drugs.” Other students have included international venture capitalists and business people who wanted to understand the latest developments in cancer research so they can determine where to invest their resources to have the most impact; clinicians who wanted to understand the science and how it applies to their work; and pharmacists who are eager to hear a clinical perspective to guide their efforts.
A Blended Learning Model
The program utilizes a blended learning model that incorporates pre-recorded lectures that students can watch at their convenience, live sessions to participate in remotely, and in-person workshops that span several days and are held in a central location for people from around the world to attend several times a year. Dr. Harlow points out that these events foster valuable in-person connections that continue long after the program ends.
Students, most of whom are accomplished in their fields and hold a master’s degree, doctoral degree, or professional degree, are also paired with a Harvard faculty mentor to guide them on the completion of a capstone project. “They will have a unique chance to write a specific document of value to them, such as a grant for funding in their home country, a science section of a business proposal, or a review of a particular area to submit for publication,” says Dr. Harlow.
Because of the flexible nature of the program and the ability to customize the schedule to meet participants’ preferences, most people are able to continue working at the same time they are enrolled in the program. This provides an ideal scenario to allow professionals to continue performing their daily responsibilities while at the same time building valuable connections, strengthening their understanding of the latest diagnostic and treatment capacities, and enhancing their personal and professional skills. The goal is to ultimately create a new generation of experts who will continue contributing to the evolving field of cancer treatment and prevention.