Immune Monitor - February 2021

A Message from the President

Dear Colleagues,

One of my hopes over the next two years as your society President is to have sit-down conversations with some of the leading experts in cancer immunotherapy, and even potentially, the greater global scientific field. These “fireside chats” will seek to celebrate the work accomplished by the individual (and his/her team) in cancer research, and discuss the ornate hurdles that remain present to any number of challenges in their line of work.

This month, I am extremely pleased to welcome SITC member, Ugur Sahin, MD. CEO of BioNTech SE, Dr. Sahin and his company collaborated with Pfizer Inc., to produce and receive emergency use authorization for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine in record time. I spoke to Dr. Sahin this month, in my first fireside chat, to discuss his background as an academic professor and researcher, the obstacles his company has had to overcome to develop an extremely effective vaccine and his expectations for the months ahead as a billion or more humans seek to receive protection from this virus.

I’m featuring a portion of the Q&A below for this month’s President’s Message, but please visit SITC’s COVID-19 Resources page on SITC CONNECT to watch the entire discussion.

: How did you get this vaccine to U.S. FDA (emergency use authorization) in less than a year? Even the experts everywhere were saying it would take three to five years to get a vaccine initially, and here you did it in 11 months. How did you get that done?

Dr. Sahin: When we started our project, we expected this would really become a global pandemic. Our goal from the very beginning was to develop a vaccine and make it available in less than one year. We named our project Lightspeed, and the idea behind this designation was that we should not lose any time, so we did not have time to waste.

We implemented a 24/7 research program. When we started, we did not know what the best vaccine candidate was, so we started with 20 vaccine candidates. We did the full pre-clinical testing immunogenicity operation of these candidates. We even GMP toxicology study, because this was a pre-requisite from the Paul-Ehrlich Institute to evaluate that. We did the GMP manufacturing, and then we started the program just a few days later.

We submitted our documents on April 20 and three days later we had the approval to start the clinical trial in Germany. We did a partnership with Pfizer. Our plan was to have a serious approach to get all of the immunogenicity data from Phase 1. We understood that two vaccines provided really strong antibody and T-cell responses. We made the decision on July 24 for one of the candidates, and on July 27 the Phase 3 clinical trial started.

Question: What’s the future hold for RNA vaccines and infectious disease? Do you see that this technology is going to start to take over, and how many different epitopes can you put in there? Do you think you’re going to one day make a COVID-flu combination vaccine for example?

Dr. Sahin: The technology has extremely broad versatility, so you can combine. In our cancer trials, we are already combining four antigens, or six antigens. And this is of course possible in the same way for infectious disease vaccines. You can combine several antigens for one virus or combine antigens for different viruses.

Another key advantage of mRNA is to be able to make faster vaccines, so the manufacturing itself takes less than two weeks, then we have about two additional weeks for quality control and sterility testing, so that means you can in principle deliver a vaccine, from scratch, within four to six weeks. This is of course important advantages compared to the viral vector vaccines or the recombinant protein vaccines.

Question: How long do you think people will be immune for after having taken an RNA-based vaccine? Do you know from your cancer studies, can you predict with the COVID vaccine, is it going to be years?

Dr. Sahin: In principle we have to ask the question in different ways. The first lesson is what is needed to avoid infection at all? The prediction here is to avoid infection, you would need higher neutralizing antibodies, which are the key to avoiding infection. If you ask the question how long is protection for avoiding severe disease, this will be much longer. Avoiding severe disease can already be happening by having sufficient number of memory cells so that the immune response can kick on early, and even if you get infected, it’s not as severe disease because the immune system can catch up and control the virus infection in a few days. I think this is the way how vaccines work – if the immune response is quick, it can prevent severe disease; if the immune responses is very strong it can prevent infection.

Here at the moment in the pandemic situation, we are of course interested in both. First of all we would like to prevent infection, because if we prevent infection we will also prevent transmissions. But the second best thing we can do is prevent severe disease and thereby avoiding people dying from the infection. The latter could be accomplished, if the goal is the latter, then I believe such vaccines could have a memory effect for years. If we really want to avoid infection, then every year a booster might be useful.

It was a very enjoyable and thought-provoking conversation, and I am very thankful for Dr. Sahin for his eagerness to share his experiences and lessons learned thus far from developing the coronavirus vaccine. I hope you enjoy listening to the entire discussion on the SITC website, and I look forward to other engaging fireside chats with cancer leaders in the future!


Patrick Hwu, MD

SITC President

SITC Biomarkers Subcommittees Publish Trio of JITC Articles

SITC congratulates the efforts of a pair of sub-groups of the SITC Biomarkers Committee for their recent publications in the Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer (JITC), including:

These manuscripts serve as critical resources for the biomarkers field that can be easily adapted into current research programs. The first manuscript is an update of a 2011 SITC-led article summarizing the progress achieved in biomarker discoveries during the past nine years. The latter two aim to promote an open and standardized biomarkers research environment by highlighting current conceptual and practical challenges to data sharing.

SITC leaders continue working together to inform the cancer immunotherapy community of the state of research. Stay tuned for more updates from SITC and the Biomarkers Committee in the coming months.

SITC Fellowship Applications Now Open – Help Spread the Word

SITC is dedicated to assisting investigators in advancing the science of immunotherapy and developing new therapeutic approaches. To further this goal, we are offering four SITC Fellowships, totaling $450,000 in funding. Applications are due by April 2 at 11:59 p.m. EST.

2021–2023 SITC-Bristol Myers Squibb Postdoctoral Cancer Immunotherapy Translational Fellowship

Term: Two years
Amount: $200,000
Learn More

2021 SITC-Amgen Cancer Immunotherapy in Hematologic Malignancies Fellowship

Term: One year
Amount: $100,000
Learn More

2021 SITC-AstraZeneca Immunotherapy in Lung Cancer Clinical Fellowship

Term: One year
Amount: $100,000
Learn More 

2021 SITC-Nektar Therapeutics Equity and Inclusion in Cancer Immunotherapy Fellowship

Term: One year
Amount: $50,000
Learn More

We encourage you to share these significant funding opportunities with early career scientists in your network to help advance clinical and translational cancer immunotherapy research.

Interested applicants, domestic and international across academia and government, may apply for more than one award. Fellowship recipients will receive complimentary registration and travel to the society’s 36th Annual Meeting & Pre-Conference Programs (SITC 2021) in November and will be recognized during the SITC 2021 Award Ceremony. Recipients will be announced in summer 2021.

SITC established the Forward Fund to support the development of the next generation of cancer immunotherapy investigators and leaders.

Save the Date: Back-to-Back Fall SITC Workshops

Interrogating the Tumor-Specific Surfaceome for Immune Targeting Workshop

Sept. 29–30, 2021 · San Diego · Registration Opening Soon

This SITC workshop will focus on the tumor cell surfaceome and the many opportunities that accompany it for the development of future immunotherapies and maximization of existing techniques. By bringing together experts on the topic from a variety of fields including medical oncology, bioinformatics, cancer biology, genetics/epigenetics, immunology, and many others, the workshop will facilitate increased discussion in this important area.

Program Organizers

  • Samir M. Hanash, MD, PhD  – The University of Texas MD Anderson
  • Avery D. Posey Jr., PhD – University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Abstracts submission will be accepted for the Interrogating the Tumor-Specific Surfaceome for Immune Targeting Workshop starting April 21, 2021. 

Bispecific T cell Engagers Workshops

Sept. 30–Oct. 1, 2021 · San Diego

This SITC workshop will focus on T cell engager biology and therapeutic strategies including target selection, therapeutic engineering and design features, cytotoxicity vs cytokine release, impact of the tumor microenvironment, and advances in conditionally-active binding. Additionally, considerations related to dosing, schedule, sequencing and combination approaches for optimizing both endogenous and synthetic immunity will be discussed. 

Program Organizers

  • Elizabeth Budde, MD, PhD – City of Hope
  • Daniel S. Chen, MD, PhD – IGM Biosciences, Inc.
  • James L. Gulley, MD, PhD, FACP – National Cancer Institute

It is anticipated that the efforts of these SITC workshops will fuel innovative collaborations, disseminate important knowledge to the rest of the immunotherapy field, and help assure the continued growth of immunotherapy treatments as a whole.

SITC Joins 130 Organizations in Prioritizing Cancer Patients and Survivors when Administrating COVID19 Vaccines

SITC joined a broad spectrum of organizations representing laboratory, translational, and clinical researchers; other health care professionals; patients with cancer; and patient advocates in sending a letter to the Biden administration and other public health officials that highlights the importance of prioritizing patients with active cancer and survivors of cancer when administering COVID-19 vaccines. Read the full letter here.