Robert Vonderheide, an internationally renowned cancer immunotherapy and translational research expert, has been named the new director of the Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) of the University of Pennsylvania. He is the Hanna Wise Professor in Cancer Research at the Perelman School of Medicine, and served as ACC’s associate director for Translational Research and executive director of its Translational Centers of Excellence program. He began his new role on July 1.
“Dr. Vonderheide’s career at Penn has been marked by continuous innovation in areas that were scarcely a possibility in the field when he arrived here in 2001,” said J. Larry Jameson dean of the Perelman School of Medicine and EVP of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System. “At each step, he has executed visionary ideas that have propelled translational research advances and made immunotherapy a crucial prong of the fight against cancer. He is uniquely qualified to lead the search for the next generation of treatments and cures.”
Dr. Vonderheide succeeds Chi Van Dang, who served as the ACC’s director since 2011 and became scientific director of the Ludwig Institute.
The ACC has continuously been designated as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) since 1973, one of 45 such Centers in the United States. It is among the nation’s most highly ranked cancer centers, providing care during more than 230,000 outpatient visits annually, as well as delivering more than 37,000 chemotherapy treatments, over 66,000 radiation treatments and 230 stem cell transplants each year. In 2015, the ACC was rated as “exceptional” during a competitive research funding review, the highest possible rating for an NCI Cancer Center.
The ACC is also home to more than 400 basic, translational and clinical scientists who work in tandem to advance new treatments and cures for cancers of all kinds. With more than 7,500 patients involved in clinical trials, the ACC is home to the largest clinical research enterprise in the Philadelphia region. During the past five years, the ACC has distinguished itself as the nation’s leader for the development of personalized cellular therapies for cancer, and launched several marquee research and clinical care programs. The Basser Center for BRCA, for instance, is the nation’s first center devoted to research on new treatment and prevention options for individuals who carry BRCA gene mutations that increase the risk of breast, ovarian and other cancers. Experts in the ACC’s Center for Personalized Diagnostics, a joint effort with the department of pathology & laboratory medicine, work to uncover the genetic underpinnings of each patient’s individual tumor through advanced genomic testing, and provide tailored treatment options. And the Center for Precision Surgery, launched in 2016, is pioneering new methods to ensure that rogue cancer cells are able to be detected and removed during surgeries.
“A hallmark of the Abramson Cancer Center is its emphasis on collaboration across disciplines in both research and clinical care—bringing the best of each specialty together to provide patients with the most creative, effective treatment options,” said Ralph Muller, CEO of UPHS. “Dr. Vonderheide has made an important imprint as a strong collaborative leader, both within Penn and through unique research partnerships with other leading cancer centers across the nation, and we are confident these skills will enable him to launch the ACC to even greater achievements.”
Through a focus on novel immunotherapies for pancreatic cancer, melanoma, breast and ovarian cancers, Dr. Vonderheide has mapped new models for speeding translational—or “bench to bedside” research. He has led studies that demonstrated the role of agonist CD40 antibodies as a potential immune therapy for cancer, paving the way to ongoing late-stage clinical trials. His work on innovative vaccine-based approaches for cancer treatment and prevention has been supported by the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute and the Basser Center for BRCA. He has also worked closely with collaborators in Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine on projects that have strengthened both human and canine health. Dr. Vonderheide has also served among leaders of an interdisciplinary team which defined a promising therapy employing both radiation and immunotherapy drugs that together mount a vaccine-like attack against cancer cells in patients with advanced melanoma. His research has appeared in Nature, Science, Cell, the New England Journal of Medicine and other leading medical journals.
At Penn, Dr. Vonderheide is also vice chair for research in the division of Hematology-Oncology, and he serves as co-director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Penn, which was founded in April 2016 by entrepreneur and philanthropist Sean Parker to foster greater collaboration between the country’s cancer centers with the goal of accelerating immunotherapy research (AlmanacNovember 1, 2016). He is also co-leader of the Stand Up to Cancer—Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Convergence Dream Team.
Dr. Vonderheide received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Notre Dame, and is a graduate of the Harvard Medical School, as well as Oxford University, where he earned a doctorate in immunology as a Rhodes Scholar. He completed residency training in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and a fellowship in medical oncology at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.