Dr. Atkins began his career at Tufts New England Medical Center where he was a founding member of the IL-2/LAK Cell Working Group which was established to validate and expand on initial reports of high-dose interleukin-2 (IL-2) activity in patients with advanced malignancies. The IL-2/LAK Cell Working Group eventually morphed into the Cytokine Working Group (CWG) which performed studies that led to the FDA approval of high-dose IL-2 in patients with advanced renal cell carcinoma in 1992 and metastatic melanoma in 1998. Under Atkins leadership the CWG explored: 1) various lower dose IL-2 combinations in an effort the expand the applicability of IL-2-based therapy to a broader array of patients, 2) combination regimens aimed at dissociating the side effects of HD IL-2 from its anti-tumor effects and 3) other cytokines, such as IL-4, IL-6, IL-12 and IL-18, with the potential for a better therapeutic index.
Atkins moved to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in 1997 where he was appointed Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and served as Deputy Chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology, leader of the Biologic Therapy and Cutaneous Oncology Programs, Co-PI of the Harvard Skin Cancer SPORE, founding leader of the Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (DF/HCC) Kidney Cancer Program and Director of the DF/HCC Kidney Cancer SPORE. As part of these SPORE grants, Dr. Atkins explored predictive biomarkers for IL-2 response in melanoma and RCC with Drs. David McDermott, Sabina Signoretti and Ryan Sullivan establishing that tumors with an inflamed microenvironment were most likely to benefit from immunotherapy. In addition, in collaboration with Drs. James Mier, Rupal Bhatt and Nahum Goldberg he explored the mechanism of resistance of RCC to antiangiogenic therapy establishing that this was due to angiogenic escape as a reaction to initial tissue hypoxia. In addition, Atkins studied extensively with the CWG colleagues the potential for combining IL-2 with chemotherapy (e.g biochemotherapy) in patients with melanoma, ultimately establishing in a Phase III Cooperative Group Trial that chemotherapy eliminated the durable antitumor effects of IL-2-based immunotherapy.
In 2012, Atkins moved to Georgetown where he is the Deputy Director of the Georgetown-Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, William M. Scholl Professor and Vice Chair of the Department of Oncology. He also leads the Lombardi Immunotherapy Initiative and is co-leader of the Melanoma Disease Group within the MedStar-Georgetown Cancer Institute. His current research focuses on checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapy for melanoma and kidney cancer and biomarkers for response and toxicity. He participated in the initial multi-dose phase 1 trial of nivolumab in multiple diseases and the combination of nivolumab/ipilimumab in melanoma and led the phase I trial of combination axitinib and pembrolizumab in treatment naive patients with metastatic RCC. He also developed and led the phase III Cooperative Group Trial (DREAMseq) which established that the treatment sequence of initial combination nivolumab/ipilimumab immunotherapy followed by targeted therapy, if necessary, produced statistically significant and clinically meaningful improvement in overall survival at two years and beyond than the inverse sequence. In addition, he has co-led efforts with Dr. Geoff Gibney to identify biomarkers for safely truncating immunotherapy treatment thereby turning “Survivors” into ”Thrivers”, with Drs. McDermott and Meredith Regan to evaluate Treatment Free Survival (TFS) as a novel endpoint for immunotherapy clinical trials and with Dr. Mario Sznol to establish a Checklist for assessing the potential value of proposed immunotherapy-based Phase III Trials.
Atkins has published over 500 articles (H-index 122, citations ~100,000) and 5 books and has lectured extensively on his research. He has been continuously funded throughout his career and currently holds an MPI R01 with colleague Dr. Anton Wellstein, a DOD grant with Dr. Cathy Wu and co-leads a Kidney Cancer SPORE Project with Drs. Wu and Signoretti. He edits the Melanoma, Kidney Cancer and Cancer Immunotherapy sections of Uptodate and has served on the NCI RAC and innumerable study NIH, Foundation and Society Study Sections. In addition, he is co-Chair of the Melanoma Research Foundation Scientific Advisory Council, a past president of the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer, and in 2021 was recognized as a “Giant in Melanoma Therapy” by OncLive.