Cancer Research Institute CEO Explains Immunotherapy in Rare Cancers

Jill O'Donnell-Tormey, PhD

Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, PhD is the CEO and Director of Scientific Affairs at the Cancer Research Institute.

Rare Disease Report caught up with O’Donnell-Tormey last week at the Fibrolamellar Cancer Foundation (FCF) Summit, where she was promoting her organization’s new partnership with the nonprofit.  The FCF and the Cancer Research Institute have teamed up to provide financial support to 4 post-doctoral fellows who are currently evaluating the potential immunological effects in the progression of fibrolamellar cancer.

In the videos below, she discusses the industry-based challenges to the discovery of possible immunological side of cancer, and the difficulties in explaining pathophysiology to patients, who sometimes assume that they can control disease progression with intake of certain vitamins.

O’Donnell-Tormey: For many years, the run-of-the-mill medical oncologist did not believe that the immune system could be used to treat or control cancer. We have actually tilted the tall tables here. In the last 6 years, I think now, if you ask any oncologist, they’d tell you that, yes, they believe that the immune system can have a role in the progression of treatment, and then possibly a role in treating cancer. We have the proof of principle, but I think when there’s success, there’s a rush into success. There’s now pharmaceutical companies who had no interest in immunotherapy and have now developed immune-oncology departments. Every major hospital is now talking about its immunotherapy program. In one respect, it’s great because there’s more interest and knowledge going around. I think the general public understands now what immunotherapy is, or at least that there’s potential and that they should speak to their doctors to see if this is something that may be for them, or if they should go into a clinical trial looking at immunotherapies.

Of course, this means that there is more competition. I think you also get people coming to the field who are not immunologists. It’s a hot area, and I think you have to be a little bit more discerning. I think that’s why partnering with the (FCF) made sense for the (Cancer Research Institute), because we have a scientific advisory council who, I believe, are in the “who’s who” of the field, and we were the people who actually reviewed the (fellow) applications that came in so that the donors to this could feel confident that they were really getting cutting edge projects, and people who were top-of-the-line, and the best of the best for investigating this.

O’Donnell-Tormey: Obviously, the thought of immunotherapy is very empowering because you’re using your own immune system to recognize and destroy the cancer in your body. All of the treatments that have gotten the excitement over the past 5 years or so are all based on ways for patients who already have cancer to actually enable the immune system to do a better job than it already did. There’s really very little data to support how someone that doesn’t have cancer can actually control their immune system to prevent getting cancer. I’m not a physician, but many physicians have said that best is a diet that’s moderate in everything, but there’s really no scientific linkage at this point that says “eat this, and this will boost your immune system and therefore, you won’t get cancer.” Getting cancer is not just a problem of the immune system. There are multiple factors that can lead to cancer.

All of the excitement now is just around a new treatment modality that can be used either in combination with standard treatments or, in some cases, the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has actually approved immunotherapies to be a frontline treatment for certain cancers. It’s really not more than “live a life of moderation” or “eat well” and “eat a lot of vegetables.” I think that’s the take-home message.


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