Sandra Demaria, M.D.
Sandra Demaria, M.D., a native of Turin, Italy, obtained her M.D. from the University of Turin, and then moved to New York City for her post-doctoral training in immunology as a Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Cancer Research Fund awardee, followed by a residency in anatomic pathology at NYU School of Medicine. She remained on the faculty at NYU until 2015 raising to the rank of Professor. She is currently Professor of Radiation Oncology and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Dr. Demaria is nationally and internationally known for her studies demonstrating the synergy of local radiation therapy with immunotherapy in pre-clinical models of cancer. She was the first to show that focal radiation therapy can be used to overcome the resistance of poorly immunogenic tumors to immune checkpoint inhibitors, a finding later translated in clinical trials. Her lab has a central interest in addressing the molecular mechanisms that regulate ionizing radiation’s ability to generate an in situ tumor vaccine in both preclinical models as well as cancer patients. Seminal findings from her lab include the demonstration that radiation upregulates the expression of chemokines that attract effector T cells to the tumor, activates canonical pathways of viral defense that elicit the production of interferons, and enhances the production and presentation by cancer cells of mutational neoantigens recognized by T cells. As a breast cancer pathologist Dr. Demaria also studies the immunological microenvironment of breast cancer in patients, and therapeutic strategies to modulate the immune infiltrate in preclinical breast cancer models and in patients. In recognition of her commitment to building a multidisciplinary team in order to identify new ways to increase cancer immunogenicity and response to immunotherapy she was the recipient of the 2021 SITC Team Science Award.
Dr. Demaria has served as Chair of the AACR Cancer Immunology Working Group from 2020 to 2022. She has been an active participant in the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer since 2008, serving as a strategic task force member, faculty for workshops, annual meetings, and several educational events including Sparkathon. She also served as the Chair of the 2019 and 2020 annual meeting and as SITC Board Director from 2014 to 2017 and has served as a member of Awards Committees. She currently serves as a member of the Finance Committee and as Section Editor for JITC’s Reviews.
SITC Election Platform Statement
What are the two or three critical issues facing the field of cancer immunotherapy?
1. In the last few years immunotherapy has transformed cancer care for some patients but durable responses remain limited, and effective treatments are not available for many cancers. In addition to innovation in bioengineering, and clinical studies that incorporate mechanistic questions and biomarker discovery, basic and translational science needs to focus on the biology of cancer and the host and go beyond combination therapies towards a holistic approach to identify solutions for immunotherapy resistance. Technological advances are enabling an unprecedented collection of data but there is a gap between the information accumulated and the ability of the scientific and medical community to interpret and use this information. Novel research strategies are needed to develop a comprehensive understanding of the factors that determine and/or influence patient response to immunotherapy.
2. Approved cancer immunotherapy agents are not equally available to all patients, even in US and other developed Countries. Patients that belong to under-represented in medical research minorities are often not included in clinical trials, leaving the influence of genetic and environmental factors on efficacy and toxicity of immunotherapy largely unexplored in this patient population. This problem is multifactorial, and spans economic, structural, cultural and educational barriers, and its solution will require engaging multiple entities and stakeholders.
3. A continuous investment in basic and translational science is required to support research and development of new immunotherapies and make progress in the field. Public support is critical to secure this investment. The recent pandemic has brought to the attention of the general public the importance of the immune system but has also exposed the fragility of public trust in science and the critical need to improve education and communication. Communication skills are not thought in graduate or medical school and most physicians and scientists are ill-prepared for this task.
What is your vision for SITC?
I believe that SITC is well-positioned to lead the efforts needed to address the critical issues facing the field of cancer immunotherapy. The Society has a proven record of leadership in education and advocacy and has provided a forum for interactions between different stakeholders. Most importantly, SITC has been the home for multidisciplinary efforts to tackle key issues in biomarker discovery and implementation, fostering discussion between scientists, clinicians, industry and regulatory agencies. It has also brought together multiple investigators to build consensus and provide guidelines for the use of immunotherapy in different diseases. These areas remain priorities while the Society should increase efforts to reach out to under-represented minorities among the scientists and clinical investigators towards the goal of mapping a road for a more diverse patient population in clinical trials of immunotherapy agents.
In addition, the Society needs to remain deeply invested in basic science and innovation, which are essential to progress. To do this, a multipronged approach is required, that includes: 1) Initiatives to attract scientists working in basic immunology, autoimmunity, infectious diseases, bioengineering, mathematical modeling, population science and other disciplines to attend the annual meeting and become SITC members; 2) Partnership with other scientific Societies; 3) Development of funding initiatives that support interdisciplinary basic science projects.
SITC should continue to promote forward thinking initiatives with big impact on the next generation of investigators. Most PhD and MD programs do not prepare young investigators to work in large teams that include multidisciplinary multi-institutional collaborators, while such teams are increasingly required to address emerging questions in cancer immunotherapy. Fostering collaborations and providing funding to young investigators will also further the unique sense of community that has shaped SITC for over 35 years.
Finally, SITC should extend and reinforce its reach outside of the US, to become a point of reference for the entire cancer immunotherapy community across the world. The expertise of SITC members from different Countries should be leveraged to identify areas of need and opportunity.