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Szent-Györgyi Prize to honor NCI’s Steven A. Rosenberg

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Steven A. Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D., will be the recipient of the 2019 Szent-Györgyi Prize.

Credit: National Institutes of Health

The 2019 Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research will be awarded to Steven A. Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D., of the Center for Cancer Research (CCR) at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), one of the National Institutes of Health. The prize, awarded annually by the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR), recognizes Dr. Rosenberg’s pioneering role in the development of adoptive immunotherapy to treat cancer.

Dr. Rosenberg, chief of CCR’s Surgery Branch, developed the first effective immunotherapies and gene therapies for selected patients with advanced cancer and was the first to successfully insert foreign genes—in this case, genetically modified T cells—into humans. His immunotherapy clinical trials have resulted in the regression of metastatic cancer in patients with melanoma, sarcomas, lymphomas, and other cancers.

“Dr. Rosenberg’s groundbreaking work has changed cancer research and what we know about treatment, but his findings have also immeasurably changed patients’ lives,” said NCI Director Ned Sharpless, M.D. “We are proud to see him awarded the Szent-Györgyi Prize, which recognizes work that has lasting impact while also honoring the importance of basic research in understanding cancer.”

Dr. Rosenberg’s clinical trials of the protein interleukin 2 (IL-2) led to the first immunotherapy approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for cancer in 1992. When investigating the mechanism of IL-2 that causes cancer regression in patients with metastatic melanoma, Dr. Rosenberg identified immune cells that had cancer-fighting properties called tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs). He and his team were the first to show in clinical trials that TILs extracted from a tumor, grown to large numbers in the lab, and then administered back to a patient, a treatment known as adoptive cell transfer (ACT) immunotherapy, could lead to tumor regression in patients with advanced melanoma.  

With his team, Dr. Rosenberg also initially developed a form of ACT immunotherapy in which a patient’s T cells are removed, genetically engineered in the laboratory to bind to specific proteins on cancer cells and kill them, and then administered back to the patient. He was the first to use T lymphocytes genetically engineered to express a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) to successfully treat patients with aggressive lymphomas. In 2017, the FDA approved the first CAR T-cell therapies for children and young adults with a form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), and then for adults with advanced lymphomas. At the time, William Dahut, M.D., scientific director for clinical research in CCR, called the first approval of CAR T-cell therapy “a landmark moment for cancer immunotherapy.”

In his current research, Dr. Rosenberg is working to extend ACT to patients with common epithelial cancers. In June 2018, Nature Medicine published findings on a new approach he developed using a modified form of ACT that led to the complete regression of breast cancer in a patient whose cancer was unresponsive to all other treatments. Though still experimental, the new approach is dependent on targeting mutations, giving it the potential to be used for the treatment of many kinds of cancer.  

According to NFCR, the Szent-Györgyi Prize honors scientists “who have made an original discovery or breakthrough in scientific understanding that has had a lasting impact on the cancer field and a direct impact of saving people’s lives.” The prize was established in 2006 in honor of NFCR’s cofounder, Albert Szent-Györgyi, M.D., Ph.D., who received the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his study of vitamin C and cell respiration.

“I’m honored to receive the Szent-Györgyi Prize, and to be in the company of the scientists who have been recognized with this award,” Dr. Rosenberg said. “We’re still learning about what immunotherapy can do for cancer patients, and we’re very excited about the advances to come.”

Last year’s Szent-Györgyi Prize was also awarded to intramural researchers at NCI: Douglas R. Lowy, M.D., and John T. Schiller, Ph.D., for their work on the development of vaccines against the human papillomavirus (HPV).

“For the NCI Intramural Program to be recognized twice in a row with this prestigious award is humbling,” said Tom Misteli, Ph.D., director of CCR at NCI. “But it reflects the unique research environment of the NCI Center for Cancer Research, which has allowed Steve Rosenberg to not only envision the potential of immunotherapy, but also lead its practical implementation.”

The prize will be presented at a ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on April 27, 2019.

About the Center for Cancer Research (CCR): CCR comprises nearly 250 teams conducting basic, translational, and clinical research in the NCI intramural program—an environment supporting innovative science aimed at improving human health. CCR’s clinical program is housed at the NIH Clinical Center—the world’s largest hospital dedicated to clinical research. For more information about CCR and its programs, visit ccr.cancer.gov.

About the National Cancer Institute (NCI): NCI leads the National Cancer Program and NIH’s efforts to dramatically reduce the prevalence of cancer and improve the lives of cancer patients and their families, through research into prevention and cancer biology, the development of new interventions, and the training and mentoring of new researchers. For more information about cancer, please visit the NCI website at cancer.gov or call NCI’s Contact Center, the Cancer Information Service, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit nih.gov.

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