Fulfills a Lifelong Dream of Fighting Cancer
Long before Elizabeth Marion Jaffee, M.D. ’85, imagined becoming an internationally recognized expert in cancer immunology and pancreatic cancers, she wondered: why doesn’t the immune system, which recognizes most infections as foreign and clears them from the body, respond similarly to cancer?
The question came to her at Brandeis University, where her undergraduate curiosity about the immune system led her to research B cell development. But it was actually during her elementary school years, following the death of her great uncle from lung cancer, when she first became interested in cancer. “I knew then that I wanted to be an oncologist,” she recalls. In addition to becoming a clinical oncologist, Dr. Jaffee joined the ranks of the world’s eminent scholars and scientists working on vaccines and immunotherapy for pancreatic and breast cancers, and has become a leading advocate for cancer research and prevention.
At the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she holds faculty positions in graduate programs in pharmacology, immunology, and cell and molecular medicine, and also serves as deputy director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, Dr. Jaffee is working on vaccines that activate a T cell response against pancreatic tumors. The T cell, a type of white blood cell, plays a key role in the immune system’s ability to fight specific types of infection.
A pioneer in the field of T cell research, Dr. Jaffee first encountered the infection-fighting lymphocytes during her days at New York Medical College (NYMC). “I began reading about T cells--a relatively new area in immunology at the time—and how they react to virally infected cells,” she recounts. “I became convinced that if the immune system could recognize viruses, then it should also be able to recognize cancers.”
Exposure to such groundbreaking concepts was among the reasons why Dr. Jaffee chose to attend NYMC. She also wanted the variety of clinical experiences that the College provided, plus the opportunity to practice primary and tertiary care in impoverished areas of New York City. “The doctors who served as my mentors taught me how to provide the best care to all people, and how to bridge racial, cultural and socioeconomic health disparities.”
This commitment to health equity drives her cutting edge research, and her determination to develop the most widely accessible treatments for breast and pancreatic cancers. It also inspires her service to many National Cancer Institute committees and academic advisory boards, as well as the contributions she has made as co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Panel that advised Vice President Joseph Biden’s Moonshot Initiative, which is working to fast-track cancer research.
Dr. Jaffee holds six vaccine patents that are still in various stages of testing, however, she is optimistic that the FDA will approve immunotherapies for breast cancer and pancreatic cancer in the next few years. “Advances in science and technology have never been greater, and we have the potential to move these advances rapidly into real treatments and preventative strategies for patients with or at risk for cancer,” she says. “I have significant experience in understanding and contributing to these advances, and believe I can communicate the message to government officials and the public about how important investing in research is to Americans and the world.”