Newswise — The European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) has named Thomas Gajewski, MD, PhD, Abbvie Foundation Professor of Cancer Immunotherapy in the Ben May Department for Cancer Research and Professor of Pathology and Medicine at the University of Chicago, as the recipient of the 2019 ESMO Immuno-Oncology Award for his groundbreaking work uncovering why some patients are resistant to immunotherapy and how to restore the anti-cancer immune response.

Gajewski investigates and develops new treatments for patients with melanoma, with a focus on immunotherapy. Gajewski also leads development of immune-based therapies for other cancers, using new laboratory data on how the immune system is regulated to develop novel clinical trials. His work has helped bring cancer immunotherapy into the mainstream, where it has had a considerable impact on patient outcomes.

“Dr. Gajewski is a globally recognized leader in oncology research and deserving of this recognition from ESMO,” said Michelle M. Le Beau, PhD, Arthur and Marian Edelstein Professor of Medicine and director of the UChicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center. “His discoveries have shaped the field of cancer immunology and transformed the treatment landscape.”

Gajewski joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1997. For more than two decades, his research has increased our understanding of immune mechanisms and immune-tumor interactions, including breakthrough work in the CTLA-4 immune checkpoint in the 1990s and characterization of the T cell-inflamed tumor microenvironment, a term he coined to describe a major subset of tumors from patients whose cellular environments harbor qualities that make them more likely to respond to immunotherapies.

In 2014, his lab showed how the Simulator of Interferon Genes (“STING”) signals the body’s innate immune system to attack tumor cells. In January 2018, he published a study in Science — featured on the issue’s cover — showing that specific strains of gut bacteria might improve the response rate to immunotherapy for patients being treated for metastatic melanoma. This study followed a November 2015 Science paper from Gajewski’s laboratory, one of the first to connect the presence of specific intestinal bacteria to greater potency for immunotherapy in mouse models.

Following this discovery, he collaborated with the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to file patent applications and the University licensed the technology to Evelo Biosciences, leading to a phase I clinical trial of the first monoclonal microbial cancer therapy used to modulate the gut microbiome.

Gajewski is an inventor on 46 patents, and three of his patent portfolios are licensed to companies developing immunotherapies. He worked with the Polsky Center to launch a start-up company, Pyxis Oncology, that will develop immunotherapies based on new discoveries in his lab. In July 2019, the company raised $22 million in venture capital financing.

Gajewski’s work on the microbiome received international media attention, and was featured in WIRED UK in February 2018 and Nature in May 2018, fueling a growing interest in immunotherapy among the public.

“Many of us have been doing research in the field of cancer immunotherapy for over 20 years, and it is amazing to see the progress that is currently benefiting so many patients,” said Gajewski. “It is humbling to be recognized by my European colleagues.”

The 2019 ESMO Immuno-Oncology Award will be presented to Gajewski on Thursday, December 12, 2019, during a dedicated session at the ESMO Immuno-Oncology Congress in Geneva, Switzerland. Gajewski also will give a keynote lecture titled “Mechanisms of immunotherapy efficacy versus resistance.”