Tullia C. Bruno, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Immunology at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) and a faculty member in the Tumor Microenvironment Center and the Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Program at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center (HCC). She obtained her PhD in Immunology from Johns Hopkins in 2010 and completed her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Colorado in 2015—both with a focus in tumor immunology. While Dr. Bruno’s PhD training concentrated on targeting inhibitory receptors on intratumoral T cells, she became interested in the role of B cells in the tumor microenvironment (TME) during her postdoctoral fellowship and has built her independent research program around understanding B cell function within tertiary lymphoid structures (TLS) in multiple human cancers. Her lab employs several state-of-the-art imaging techniques to locationally dissect B-T cell crosstalk in and out of TLS. Dr. Bruno’s research lab has an overt focus on studying immunity within cancer patients, which makes her research highly translational with the potential for future clinical trials targeting B cells and amplifying TLS. Thus, Dr. Bruno’s overall research objective is to develop a B cell-specific immunotherapy in the next five to ten years.
In addition to her research endeavors, Dr. Bruno is committed to effective mentoring of her trainees, an advocate for women in science, and committed to diversity and inclusion within her lab group. This is evidenced by her commitments at Pitt and volunteer activities in several groups nationally. Locally, she participates in the Microbiology and Immunology Diversity Scholars Program (MIDs) at Pitt and is the current chair of the UPMC HCC Women’s Taskforce. Nationally, she is an active volunteer for multiple societies that promote these arenas: TRCCC (Board of Directors), CABTRAC, the National Postdoctoral Association (Board of Directors), and of course, SITC. Within SITC, Dr. Bruno actively participates in the national meeting each year. In 2018, she co-chaired a session on B cells in cancer and returned in 2020 to co-chair another session on this ever-evolving research niche. At the 2019 annual meeting, she served as the local meeting correspondent and participated as a table leader at the Meet the Expert Lunch. Dr. Bruno is also part of the SITC Membership Committee, the Awards Review Committee (Chair for 2022), and the Cancer Immune Responsiveness Taskforce (Co-Chair on Transcriptional Patterns in the TME). She is also an avid participant in the SITC Women in Cancer Immunotherapy Network and was a participant in the inaugural 2019 SITC WIN Leadership Institute in Seattle. Dr. Bruno is passionate about her research, her trainees, and promoting the growth of SITC over the next several years.
SITC Election Platform Statement
What are the two or three critical issues facing the field of cancer immunotherapy?
Cancer immunotherapy became my passion as a graduate student. I entered graduate school with the goal of becoming a well-trained immunologist; I had no idea that I would become part of a field that would be so important for patient care and that would come to the forefront of research over the last twenty years. While there have been vast strides in the treatment of cancer patients with standard of care immunotherapies like anti-CTLA4 and anti-PD1, there is still room for improvement. Thus, there are several critical issues facing the field of cancer immunotherapy that can be improved so that we are providing the best therapeutic combinations to cancer patients:
Consideration of other cell types within the tumor microenvironment (TME). While most immunotherapies have been T cell centric, we know that there are several other immune and non-immune cell types that can impact the TME in cancer patients. As someone who studies one of these cell types (B cells), I believe that collaborative science that allows for a better understanding of immune-stromal-tumor interactions in cancer patients will continue to be important over the next several years. Indeed, this will require a concerted effort from not only cancer immunologists but also cancer biologists and clinicians so that we are unifying our expertise to understand new cellular interactions to target in the clinic.
Mechanism of action of immunotherapeutic drugs. One of the biggest challenges in the field is trying to understand which therapeutic options are the best for various patient cohorts. Rather than simply combining different immunotherapeutic drugs, there should be more scientific effort on dissecting the interplay of the immune response with the remainder of the TME. This will allow for appropriate targeting of key aspects of the TME that synergize to promote or dampen the anti-tumor response. Thus, there is a need to continue aggressive investigation of the mechanism of action of these therapies and where they can be improved. As a skilled group of researchers, we should be focusing on this critical issue by dissecting the mechanism of resistance to these immunotherapies in treatment naïve patients. So often, these therapies are given in the setting of patient resistance. While this is informative, more studies understanding what is happening prior to and after the first round of immunotherapy will be enlightening.
Utilization of the immune response for improved pre-detection of cancer. Over the last several years, there has been a lot of discussion on biomarkers for treatment or response in cancer patients. While there have been some immune-based biomarkers utilized i.e. PDL1 expression, it is more likely that an immune-based biomarker must be multi-faceted. Specifically, a combination of soluble and tissue-specific factors for patient selection. Team research dedicated to this arena is paramount to improving these predictors. Further, applying immune predictors to improve pre-screening for patients is one of my long-term goals and I would like to see the field put combined efforts into this research initiative so we can eventually screen more patients earlier for cancer detection.
Of course, these are all the scientific issues within the field of cancer immunotherapy. We must continue to improve upon gender balance, diversity and inclusion, and robust training of our graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to ensure that the most innovative ideas for immunotherapeutics are brought forward while excellent training in rigor and reproducibility are achieved. We must each work toward improving within our personal lab space but should also impart these expectations on our colleagues for forward motion. By doing this, we can actively contribute to SITC’s goal of making the word “cure” a reality for cancer patients everywhere.
What is your vision for SITC?
SITC has grown to be one of the largest societies to support and promote immunotherapy since its formation in 1984. Currently, SITC has more than 4,650 members, which represent over 35 medical specialties from 63 countries around the world. All these individuals are engaged in the research and treatment of cancer. SITC has excelled at assembling high caliber scientific meetings and focusing on initiatives of major importance to the field. My vision for SITC is to increase membership but with an emphasis on engaging more cancer biologists that work on aspects of the TME that influence the immune system. Some of the best collaborative work that I have participated in at UPMC HCC has brought together not just individuals that understand the immune system in cancer, but that also consider and study the intricacies of the TME. Second, I plan to dedicate time to the education and outreach of trainees, particularly those that are interested in branching into cancer immunology for the next stage of their career. Specifically, I would like to establish a seminar series that prepares trainees for the next steps of their career, whether that be academia, industry, policy, etc. I will draw from my non-traditional trajectory (research track faculty to tenure stream faculty) to help mentor those that want to reside in academia.
This will include a program that provides hands on mentorship when beginning a faculty position on all the aspects of academia that are not learned as a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow. Further, with the SITC WIN group, I would aim to develop a one-day symposium around diversity and inclusion that highlights not just faculty but also trainees in this space. It would include not just scientific talks but trainings on diversity and inclusion practices and initiatives at various institutions. Third, as someone who participates in a lot of team science, I would like to see SITC offer grants that promote team science in the field of cancer immunotherapy. As the current Chair of the Awards Review Committee, we have already begun to discuss this possibility, which will bring more of our members together to accomplish the goals of the society. Lastly, I plan to be a conduit with other like-minded organizations and patient advocates that I actively work with on similar issues so that SITC can grow its external collaborations and provide the best resources to its members.