Larry Kwak, M.D., Ph.D. Named to TIME Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World
First M. D. Anderson faculty to receive distinction, recognized for commitment to immunotherapy
M. D. Anderson News Release 04/29/10
Recognized for his 20-year commitment to the science of cancer vaccines, specifically a personalized therapy for follicular lymphoma, Larry Kwak, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Lymphoma and Myeloma at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, has been named to the 2010 TIME 100.
Kwak is the first active M. D. Anderson faculty member to be named to TIME's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Andrew von Eschenbach, M.D., once chair of M. D. Anderson's Department of Urology, was also recognized in 2006 while at the US Food and Drug Administration.
"While this honor offers a tremendous sense of personal satisfaction, it's also great recognition for M. D. Anderson, because it shows the institution's true translational research capabilities," said Kwak, who holds the Justin Distinguished Endowed Chair in Leukemia. "Just as important, this is a wonderful distinction for the field of cancer vaccines because it's finally getting the scientific recognition it deserves."
The magazine's list, now in its seventh year, recognizes the activism, innovation and achievement of the world's most influential individuals. As managing Editor Rick Stengel stated, "The TIME 100 is not a list of the most powerful people in the world, it's not a list of the smartest people in the world, it's a list of the most influential people in the world. They're scientists, they're thinkers, they're philosophers, they're leaders, they're icons, they're visionaries - people who are using their ideas, their visions, their actions to transform the world and have an effect on a multitude of people."
Kwak's commitment to the science of cancer vaccines spans his career, though his interest in the field dates back even earlier.
"My mentor in high school introduced me to the idea that you could maybe, one day, harness the immune system to fight cancer. That idea just grabbed me and I've been focused on that ever since," said Kwak. "You could credit my persistence. Or, as my kids might say, 'He's just being stubborn again.'"
Kwak's research - a vaccine for follicular lymphoma - was put to the test in the first randomized Phase III clinical trial sponsored by the National Cancer Institute. Presented on the plenary session of 2009 American Society of Clinical Oncology, the trial enrolled 234 patients - all of whom were first treated with a specific chemotherapy regimen. Of those patients, 117 went into complete remission, or had a complete response, for at least six months, and then received either the vaccine or a placebo. Median time to relapse for the 76 vaccinated patients was 44.2 months, compared with 30.6 months for the 41 who received placebo.
"Immunology shows us that there's a weak immune response at the onset of cancer but it's somehow shut down very early," Kwak said. "The next generation of vaccines probably will be combined with therapy that interferes with mechanisms that shut off immune response."
The crucial component of the vaccine is a receptor protein extracted from the patient's malignant B cell lymphocytes and purified in large amounts, thereby allowing customization of each patient's vaccine from their own tumor - the ultimate in personalized therapy, said Kwak. The protein is combined with a delivery agent and an adjuvant growth factor and the whole cocktail is injected back into the patient.
"With our positive clinical trial, I think we finally have our foot in the door. That opens up a whole host of opportunities for further optimizing the therapy and really bringing it to reality for patients," said Kwak. "The first 20 years were spent taking the home-grown laboratory product into patients, now we're in the phase of taking patient material back into the laboratory to further dissect the mechanism and look for biomarkers. Hopefully, that information will guide us as we design future clinical trials for patients."
Kwak's findings may be applicable to other types of cancers, as well as a broader range of patients, not only those that achieve remission, but possibly those with advanced cancer, could also benefit from such vaccine therapies. In addition, Kwak's team is currently designing a trial for a preclinical lymphoma condition.
"Obviously, much more work needs to be done for our patients, and M. D. Anderson is a remarkable place to do this type of translational research." 04/29/10