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Dr. Justin A. Chen on AACR-AstraZeneca Clinical Immuno-oncology Research Training Fellowship Impact

The AACR-AstraZeneca Clinical Immuno-oncology Research Training Fellowship Program is designed to encourage exceptional clinical research by bridging close collaboration between academia and industry. Each fellowship provides $100,000 over one year to support the salary and benefits of the fellow while working at one of facilities of AstraZeneca and its Affiliates in Gaithersburg, MD.

Selected clinical researchers are provided with real-world experience in early-stage and/or late-stage clinical development at the facilities of AstraZeneca and its Affiliates, including drug development, clinical research in immune-oncology (IO), clinical trial design and data analysis.

2020 fellow Justin A. Chen, MD, shares his perspective on the impact of the grant.

What has drawn you to immuno-oncology therapeutic development as a physician-scientist?

One of the first patients I cared for in residency was a cancer patient who had an incredible response to immunotherapy, yet also, significant toxicity. I gained an appreciation for the delicate balance between pro- and anti-inflammatory effects and was captivated by how immunotherapy changed the cancer treatment paradigm by harnessing the intricacies of the complex immune system. In my oncology fellowship, I felt driven to further understand the underlying mechanisms in immuno-oncology and to become immersed in the process of developing therapeutic strategies from pre-clinical hypotheses to realized clinical efficacy.

Since 1993, the AACR grants program has contributed to the development of new and improved approaches to cancer treatment and cure. What is your vision for the future of immuno-oncology therapies research?

It is an exciting time to be involved in immuno-oncology research as incredible progress has been made in unlocking the immune system towards actualized benefits for cancer patients. As technology evolves, the oncology community has become increasingly adept at identifying predictive and prognostic biomarkers. There now exists datasets with incredible breadth and depth, including those paired with clinical data. Computing prowess has accelerated the ability to collect, organize, analyze, and interpret data from these sources, and these strategies will continue to be invaluable tools in deciphering the mysteries of the immune system. Such unknowns currently include why and how some patients derive durable benefit with immunotherapy, how to harness these lessons learned to further augment the immune system’s anti-cancer abilities, and the identification of optimal combination partners. The penultimate goal of these scientific discoveries is towards the betterment of oncology patients, and my hope is that these endeavors will be scaled to provide these promising clinical trials and novel efficacious agents to patients globally.

The AACR-AstraZeneca Clinical Immuno-oncology Research Training Fellowship Program is a unique program, enabling promising physician-scientists to gain first-hand experience in working in an industry setting. How has this training experience been of benefit to your career and research?

This was a formative experience that revealed the complex and demanding work required behind-the-scenes in clinical development. This opportunity allowed me to have an unbounded experience in advancing novel agents into early and late phase clinical trials. My mentors provided me with a platform to be inquisitive, creative, and immersed in every step of clinical trial execution including regulatory interactions, commercial strategy, pharmacovigilance, and statistical design. Mentors and educational opportunities were easily accessible, and concepts I previously learned in courses or textbooks were fast-tracked into tangible skills that were unique to graduating clinical fellows. My relationships with these individuals have persisted beyond my time as a fellow and have additionally provided opportunities for future professional and personal development.

What are the most important lessons that you have learned because of your AACR-supported research training fellowship?

Immuno-oncology research is inherently multi-disciplinary, and this was exemplified during my fellowship working with experts across multiple domains. A collaborative spirit was fostered through appreciating the work of others, and the most successful teams I observed relied upon a diverse group of talented individuals. Although this experience was distanced from the bedside interactions I trained for, patient beneficence and non-maleficence remained a guiding principle – adhering to this principle was crucial in navigating teams and stakeholders through complicated scenarios. Lastly, this fellowship imparted me with an appreciation for the global practice of oncology, especially for the challenges in clinical practice particular to specific locales. Recognizing these endemic issues proved essential in offering clinical trials to a diverse patient population and in challenging the standard of care with novel therapeutic strategies.   

What message would you like to convey, if any, to other clinical fellows who may be considering applying for this training fellowship?

Oncology fellows as physicians and physician-scientists are uniquely situated at the junction in converting scientific theory into actualized patient benefit. Training in oncology fellowship provides fellows with a rare blend of practical and scientific skills that is highly valuable in a multitude of scenarios both within and beyond the walls of a clinic. The collaborative fellowships offered through AACR with industry partners represent an opportunity to enact and hone the competencies already established during clinical training. Therefore, I encourage, with my highest recommendation, that enterprising fellows apply for this extraordinary opportunity to partake in this challenging and illuminating experience.