“We Had to Do Better”: Dr. Elizabeth Jaffee on a Career in Cancer Research and Treatment

Dr. Elizabeth Jaffee

This post is the first in a series on getting to know the President’s Cancer Panel. Stay tuned for interviews with the other Panel members.

Elizabeth Jaffee, M.D., is the chair of the President’s Cancer Panel and an internationally recognized expert in cancer immunology and pancreatic cancer treatment and research. She previously served as cochair of the Cancer Moonshot Blue Ribbon Panel and as past chair of the National Cancer Advisory Board.

Dr. Jaffee’s research focuses on the inflammatory responses that are associated with cancer development and progression, and the development of immunotherapies to treat specific inflammatory signals. From the beginning of her career, Dr. Jaffee was drawn to the mysteries of the human immune system.

“I was really excited about virology,” she says, “which was just then starting to be better understood.” The discovery and refinement of antibiotics and vaccines in the first half of the twentieth century had revolutionized the field of public health and raised the average person’s life expectancy. As technology and knowledge rapidly advanced in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dr. Jaffee believed she could find a way to use these discoveries to help prevent cancer.

And help was needed. Cancer treatment at that time was “barbaric,” Dr. Jaffee remembers. “We were giving chemotherapy, but we didn’t know how to dose it. People were getting sick. They were in a lot of pain, and we didn’t even do a good job of pain control. I spent a good part of my fellowship in the early 1990s just trying to keep patients as comfortable and functioning as possible. I realized then that we had to do better.”

The field of cancer immunology was still young when Dr. Jaffee began exploring ways to use the body’s natural protection to defend against cancer. She and her colleagues were among the first to use genetically engineered tumors to activate the immune system against cancerous cells in the kidney. They had created the first cancer vaccines. Dr. Jaffee remembers the feeling well. “It was just so powerful,” she says. "We were all just so excited to be a part of this.” The hunch that the immune system could be harnessed to fight cancer turned out to be a good one. Research done during this time laid the groundwork for the first immune checkpoint inhibitors, a type of medication that has revolutionized the treatment of many cancers, including metastatic forms of the disease that used to have few or no treatment options.

Around that time, Dr. Jaffee’s uncle died of pancreatic cancer. Witnessing her uncle’s experience of the disease and its treatment was another important moment in Dr. Jaffee’s life and career. She turned her attention to pancreatic tumors.

“I spent the next 20 years trying to understand this cancer in patients,” she says. “This was not easy, because we didn’t even have the technology until after the first sequencing of the human genome in 2000. But we were doing studies, and we were getting results.” Dr. Jaffee has continued to develop and test new immune-based therapies for pancreatic cancer to this day. She now specializes in pancreatic pre-cancer and cancer in high-risk populations.

So much has changed since Dr. Jaffee entered the field. There is much work still to be done, Dr. Jaffee says, but great cause for hope, too. “This is a new era.”