Jennifer Wargo, M.D., elected to the National Academy of Medicine

Physician-scientist recognized for groundbreaking research on how the microbiome influences cancer treatment response 

Jennifer Wargo, M.D., professor of Surgical Oncology and Genomic Medicine and core member of the James P. Allison Institute at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) for her contributions to the understanding of melanoma treatment response and resistance to cancer therapies, including groundbreaking discoveries that reveal how the gut microbiome influences responses to immunotherapy.

Established originally as the Institute of Medicine in 1970 by the National Academy of Sciences, NAM advises the nation on issues related to health, medicine, health policy and biomedical sciences. Each year, members are elected to the NAM by their peers in recognition of outstanding professional achievement and commitment to service. It is considered one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine.

“I am honored and humbled to be chosen by my peers for inclusion in such a prestigious group of clinicians and scientists,” Wargo said. “We are only beginning to understand the potential for targeting the microbiome to improve treatment outcomes, and I look forward to the discoveries ahead as we seek to better treat, intercept and prevent cancer.”

Together with her team, Wargo led pioneering research demonstrating that patients with metastatic melanoma who had more diverse gut microbiome populations or an abundance of certain bacterial species had improved clinical outcomes with immune checkpoint inhibitors. This research was published in Science.

Subsequent research by Wargo and her colleagues discovered how changes to the microbiome can improve outcomes following immunotherapy treatment. Another study published in Science demonstrated that a high-fiber diet was associated with improved responses to immunotherapy in patients with melanoma. These results inspired an ongoing MD Anderson trial, led by Carrie Daniel-MacDougall, Ph.D., and Jennifer McQuade, M.D., evaluating the impact of a high-fiber diet on the microbiome and immunotherapy responses in patients with melanoma and other cancers.

“Dr. Wargo is a renowned physician-scientist who is passionate about leading breakthrough research that can improve the lives of patients with cancer,” said Peter WT Pisters, M.D., president of MD Anderson. “She has made fundamental and practice-changing contributions to the field, and we congratulate her on this well-deserved honor.”

Wargo has devoted her career to uncovering the mechanisms responsible for regulating response or resistance to cancer therapies, including targeted therapies and immunotherapies. In previous research, she discovered that treatment with molecularly targeted therapy could sensitize tumor cells to treatment with immunotherapy, suggesting that combining targeted therapy and immunotherapy could improve patient outcomes.

She joined MD Anderson in 2013 to help lead the Melanoma Moon Shot® and to continue translational research on targeted therapy, immunotherapy and the impact of the gut and tumor microbiome in cancer. Wargo leads MD Anderson’s Platform for Innovative Microbiome and Translational Research (PRIME-TR) to advance novel microbiome-targeted therapeutic approaches.

Wargo has authored and co-authored more than 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals and serves in several leadership roles at MD Anderson and in professional societies. She has mentored many young scientists in the field, including those who are part of a Woman in Cancer in Immunotherapy group. Her leadership has been acknowledged through prestigious awards, including the 2023 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Medicine from the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering, Science and Technology; the Rising STARs Award from University of Texas System; The Regents’ Health Research Scholars Award from UT System; and the Young Investigator Award from the Society for Melanoma Research (2014). 

Wargo joins 11 additional MD Anderson clinicians and scientists in the NAM, including current members Jim Allison, Ph.D., Ronald DePinho, M.D., Maura Gillison, M.D., Ph.D., Ellen Gritz, Ph.D., V. Craig Jordan, Ph.D., Guillermina Lozano, Ph.D., David Piwnica-Worms, M.D., Ph.D., Helen Piwnica-Worms, Ph.D., and Anil Sood, M.D. Former members, now deceased, include Waun Ki Hong, M.D., and John Mendelsohn, M.D.