Three scientists whose research on T cells paved the way for innovative new immunotherapies for cancer patients, Steven Rosenberg, Zelig Eshhar, and James Allison, are the winners of this year’s Meira and Shaul G. Massry Prize.

The Meira and Shaul G. Massry Foundation established the international Massry Prize in 1996 to recognize outstanding contributions to the biomedical sciences and the advancement of health. Founded by Shaul Massry, MD, professor emeritus of medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, the nonprofit foundation promotes education and research in nephrology, physiology, and related fields.

Immunotherapy attempts to stimulate the immune system to destroy tumors. T cells are a class of white blood cells that is capable of recognizing tumors, binding to them and attacking cancer cells. Understanding T cells and enhancing their ability to attack cancer led to the development of a new class of treatment.

Rosenberg, MD, PhD, chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute, is credited with developing a procedure known as adoptive cell transfer (ACT). Rosenberg was the first to isolate T cells with the most effective tumor-killing properties, expand their numbers in the lab and transfer them back to the patient. Clinical trials using ACT for patients with metastatic melanoma are ongoing at several institutions.

Although T cells exhibit a wide range of receptors for cancers, they have limitations. Eshhar, PhD, professor of immunology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, developed a technique to expand the range of T cells to attack cancers. Eshhar created chimeric antigen receptors, or CARs, by fusing portions of the T cell receptor with antibodies that recognize tumor antigens, or with other molecules that promote binding to tumor cells, killing them.

Allison, PhD, chair of the department of immunology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, exposed how cancer cells evade immune system attacks and developed antibodies that block this ability. His research led to a new treatment for metastatic melanoma and opened the door to many new so-called immune checkpoint treatments.

“Drs. Rosenberg, Eshhar and Allison have carried out major basic research observations, translational studies and clinical applications that initiated this new era in cancer therapy,” said Shaul Massry. “Their work fulfills the lofty goals of the Massry Foundation in supporting extraordinary contributions to biomedical sciences.”

— By Hope Hamashige