The doctor ushering in a new era of cancer research and care at UChicago

Prof. Kunle Odunsi leads Comprehensive Cancer Center as new pavilion construction begins

Outsmarting cancer is a long game, says Prof. Kunle Odunsi. The director of the University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center has devoted his career in gynecologic oncology to doing just that.

Arriving in 2021, Odunsi was drawn to UChicago by the potential to join forces with partners, including Argonne National Laboratory and the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, that can bring powerful tools and expertise to the effort against cancer. Resources like artificial intelligence and molecular engineering, Odunsi believes, will be crucial to the next important breakthroughs, whether those prove to be novel forms of cellular therapy that boost the immune system, effective drugs identified with the help of artificial intelligence, new vaccines—or all of the above.

In 2027, Odunsi and his colleagues will gain a valuable tool in their work: a 575,000-square-foot pavilion dedicated to cancer treatment and research. The first facility of its kind in Illinois, the pavilion will bring all of the University’s cancer researchers and caregivers together in one location. For patients it will provide seamless care, with in-house technology for diagnosis and personalized therapies, support services such as stress reduction and nutritional care, and dedicated space for patients to participate in the latest clinical trials.

Odunsi first studied medicine in his native Nigeria before completing residencies at the University of Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s Hospital and at Yale New Haven Hospital, and a research fellowship at the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital. His comments have been edited and condensed.

How did cancer care and research become your life’s work?

As a medical student in Nigeria, I was deeply touched by the resilience of cancer patients and their families, and wanted to do something to help. In addition, I had a few family members succumb to this deadly disease.

What I found during my training and as a junior faculty member was that more than 70 percent of patients will initially respond to treatment. I would sit down with those patients and tell them there’s no evidence of disease. Sometimes they’d hug me. But at the back of my mind, I was plagued by the question of whether this cancer was going to come back, because we know there’s about a 70 percent chance of relapse, typically within 12 to 18 months.

That became one of the driving forces for me initially. I began to ask several questions: How can we extend remission rates in ovarian cancer patients? Can we use the immune system to prevent relapse of cancer, similar to how we use vaccines for seasonal flu, when a patient is in remission? If so, what are potential targets on cancer cells that could be recognized by the immune system that we can use to construct such vaccines?

My group spent years trying to identify ideal targets that can be recognized by the immune system. The ideal target would be a molecule that is present on the cancer cell—for instance, a protein or an enzyme—but not in other normal tissue, to prevent side effects. And it must have the potential to elicit a response by the immune system.

We were fortunate to identify a few of these types of targets and started to develop vaccines that we tested in preclinical models and in clinical trials. We demonstrated that while we could elicit immune responses to the cancer vaccines, and saw extended remission rates in some patients, overall they were not sufficient to control tumor progression.

Next, we started learning a lot of other things about how the cancer fights back, and how the tumor environment is hostile to our vaccine-induced immune cells. That led us to ask new questions about how to counteract some of the negative feedback. Our work got to the point where we recognized the need to generate large numbers of immune cells for attacking tumors, so we can overwhelm any negative feedback. We embarked on a program of generating engineered T cells for the treatment of ovarian cancer patients.

What made you want to come to UChicago?

I came to a point in my career when I was looking for an institution where I could be part of the next major breakthrough in cancer research and care.

I believe that institution is the University of Chicago. As I looked at UChicago, I saw an opportunity to leverage the intellectual firepower of a world-class university for advancing cancer research and care. Examples include access to Argonne, the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, and the Physical Sciences Division, where we can work with chemists, physicists, and experts in a number of other disciplines. I felt that the University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center is an environment where we can develop a bold vision that would truly make impactful breakthroughs that will have broad benefit for humanity—as well as educate the next generation of the cancer workforce. I believe we have all the ingredients within the University of Chicago ecosystem to be able to accomplish this vision.

What are the tactics for pursuing that vision?

One of the first things we did after my arrival was to conduct a strategic planning exercise. We carefully identified our strengths and opportunities where we can make the most impact. One example is in cancer drug discovery and development. We are identifying new cancer targets and discovering new drugs at an accelerated pace thanks to our collaboration with Argonne. With Argonne’s capabilities in supercomputation and artificial intelligence, we are able to probe billions of compounds to the limits of chemical space and identify the best ones to advance toward clinical development. This program cuts across multiple disciplines that include the Department of Chemistry and PME.

Another approach is in the area of cellular therapies. Several investigators in the Biological Sciences Division and Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering are working together to ask, How can we engineer super-immune cells that can go in and destroy the tumor target, as well as resist counterattack by the cancer? First-generation cell therapies have been successful for treating liquid tumors [tumors affecting the blood, bone marrow, or lymphatic system] like lymphoma and leukemia. There are significant challenges with solid tumors such as ovarian and pancreatic cancer. We’re trying to overcome those limitations with innovative engineering strategies.

How are you collaborating with other areas of the University?

One major priority for the center is cancer health disparities.

In our own area on the South Side of Chicago, you see significantly higher rates of mortality from cancer than in the overall U.S. population. Some of the challenges here include the social determinants of health and issues of access to care and nutrition. These facts compel us to think of novel ways to collaborate with the Social Sciences Division, the Harris School of Public Policy, the Department of Economics and Chicago Booth. We have documented health disparities, but what are the critical gaps in knowledge about them that will then allow us potentially to influence policy?

All of these interactions and collaborations have led us to create a new Center to Eliminate Cancer Inequity, or CinEQUITY.

Is immunotherapy the future of cancer treatment?

Immunotherapy has been revolutionary for cancer patients. I believe we are still at the beginning of the immunotherapy revolution, as we continue to make new discoveries about how the immune system interacts with cancer. Basically, it has been shown that the immune system can recognize and destroy cancers. The next question is, How do you maximally leverage that information? We’ve come a long way. Many kinds of immunotherapy are now approved by the FDA and have become part of standard care. Probably most well known is the use of immune checkpoint inhibitors. These inhibitors are able to unleash the immune system, especially the preexisting spontaneous immune reaction to the cancer. This therapy has been approved for many types of cancers, including lung, liver, kidney, bladder and cervical.

Another form of immunotherapy that is likely to become part of standard care is cellular immunotherapy. This is advancing rapidly, mostly because of our increased understanding of the biology of critical immune cells such as T cells and NK [natural killer] cells in our body. Can we generate large numbers of tumor-specific cells and give them back to the patient, and how can we properly reengineer them to be much more effective?

Another avenue of immunotherapy is cancer vaccines. I anticipate that in the future we will have both therapeutic vaccines as well as vaccines for immunoprevention. There are still no approved therapeutic vaccines against cancer, but there are preventive vaccines, such as the HPV vaccine to prevent human papillomavirus infection, which in turn decreases the chance of developing cervical cancer.

Who will be treated in the pavilion, and what will be different about their care?

We envision this will become a destination for care of some of the most difficult cancer cases—patients who can greatly benefit from the expertise and the technology—from our local community as well as from other parts of the country and probably the world.

One of the things we challenged ourselves with during planning was to ask: What will cancer care be like in 10 or 20 or 30 years? We unleashed our imagination in the areas of technology, research and how to provide the best patient experience. Research and innovation are embedded everywhere in the pavilion—from when a patient makes the first contact and throughout that patient’s journey. It’s in the DNA of this building. Patients can expect to have access to the latest and best care and to innovative clinical trials.

Cancer diagnosis is one of the most challenging periods for patients and their families, so the pavilion is designed to provide maximum support as they navigate the cancer journey. And let’s not forget that this new building is part of a hub-and-spoke model with our network of facilities throughout the area. Everything that happens in those places will be coordinated with the central hub, so patients at all locations can expect the same level of care.

—This story is adapted from one that appeared in the Winter 2024 University of Chicago Magazine.