Dr. Steven Rosenberg has spent four decades at the National Cancer Institute, developing life-saving treatments for millions of cancer patients by pioneering the use of the body’s immune system and genetically engineering anti-tumor cells to fight the disease.
Rosenberg’s major accomplishment has been the development of immunotherapy, an approach that uses the body’s own properties, or cells grown in a laboratory, to get the immune system to attack cancer cells, eliminating them, or stopping or slowing their growth.
“More than any individual, Steven Rosenberg has been the pioneer in the development of cancer immunotherapy,” said Dr. Nicholas Restifo, a senior investigator at the cancer institute.
Since Rosenberg introduced the first immunotherapy treatment, interleukin 2 (IL-2), and demonstrated its effectiveness at reducing tumors, millions of patients have lived longer and experienced an improved quality of life. He and hundreds of researchers—many of them graduates of Rosenberg’s program at the National Cancer Institute—have gone on to discover variations of immunotherapies to fight previously incurable cancers.
“He’s viewed as the leader in this field,” said Dr. Harold Varmus who, until recently, led the National Cancer Institute. But few believed in the field’s prospects when Rosenberg began working on immunotherapy in the 1970s, he added.
“What really deserves credit here is his willingness to stick with a difficult kind of therapy and keep people aware that he had occasional successes, and that with new approaches there could be even more successes,” Varmus said.
Currently, Rosenberg, his team of researchers and partners around the world are working on what are known as “checkpoint inhibitors” that wake up the immune system. Tumors have the ability to put the immune system to sleep after a while. These checkpoint inhibitors awaken the immune system so that it can attack the cancer again and destroy it.
“As in decades past, he is continuing to search for breakthroughs that will prolong and save lives,” Restifo said.
Rosenberg began his professional life as a surgeon, but surgery was not effective if the cancer had spread.
“That got me very interested in whether or not the body’s own wisdom, the body’s own immune system, could treat cancer better than any outside force could,” said Rosenberg, the cancer institute’s chief of surgery.
It took years of research and clinical trials with varying levels of success before he developed the first effective immunotherapy treatment. The result was originally published in 1985 in the New England Journal of Medicine, resulting in an additional successful treatment doctors could use with patients, along with the mainstream therapies of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
Rosenberg and his team at the cancer institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, also were the first to genetically modify lymphocytes—the normal immune cells in the body—and convert them into cells that can fight the cancer.
This is known as adoptive cell therapy and involves identifying and removing lymphocytes with anti-tumor activity from a cancer patient, expanding and growing these cells in the lab, and infusing them back into the same person.
“That was the first effective immunotherapy using gene therapy,” said Rosenberg. “That is becoming a common treatment for patients with lymphomas, because we can put in receptors that can recognize the lymphoma. We are in a period now of enormous change.”
According to Rosenberg, about 20 to 25 percent of patients with metastatic melanoma cancers that spread from the place where the cancer first started to elsewhere in the body can be cured with these immunotherapies. His work was highlighted in the PBS program Emperor of Maladies, the History of Cancer, shown on PBS this past spring. In 2015, he was awarded the Medal of Honor by the American Cancer Society.
As part of his continuing research, Rosenberg has “focused on unraveling the way that the immune system actually works, leading to a lot of novel approaches,” said Dr. Michael Atkins, deputy director of the Georgetown-Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, D.C.
“He is a national treasure,” Atkins added. “He is fundamental to the success of immunotherapy. Without him, this program would not have happened.”
Rosenberg and hundreds of researchers—many of them graduates of his program—have gone on to discover variations of immunotherapies to fight previously incurable cancers, based on his scientific vision and advocacy for immunotherapy.
He is a “true scientist,” said Dr. David Sachs, professor of surgery and immunology at Harvard Medical School. “He shares his research freely with others so that they can advance as well.”
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