Hinrichs reflects on his move from NCI to Rutgers Cancer Immunology and Metabolism Center of Excellence

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Christian S. Hinrichs, MD

Chief, Section of Cancer Immunotherapy; Co-director, Cancer Immunology and Metabolism Center of Excellence, Rutgers Cancer Institute; Co-leader, Cancer Metabolism Growth Program Professor of medicine, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

We are focused on the discovery and development of new T cell therapies, particularly gene-engineering approaches that allow T cells to specifically and powerfully target tumors.

Christian Hinrichs recently moved to a new role, as chief of the Section of Cancer Immunotherapy and co-director of the Cancer Immunology and Metabolism Center of Excellence at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

He co-leads the center with Eileen White, deputy director and chief scientific officer at Rutgers Cancer Institute. 

Hinrichs was recruited from NCI, where he most recently served as a tenured senior investigator in the Genitourinary Malignancies Branch. His research is focused on the development of cellular therapy for cancers that begin in epithelial cells. Hinrichs also develops treatments for HPV-associated cancers. 

Hinrichs spoke with Paul Goldberg, editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter.

Paul Goldberg: Can you tell me how your immuno-oncology program at Rutgers is different from others?

Christian Hinrichs: I think this program will be different from most other programs in a number of important ways. It will be particularly strong in bench-to-bedside research. The power of well-designed, iterative clinical trials cannot be overstated to get at the truth of a hypothesis in human disease. We are putting into place key expertise and facilities for first in human clinical trials in immunotherapy and cell therapy. 

The program also is developing in a highly collaborative research environment where investigators interact freely, and in a right-sized institution with a strong culture of teamwork and collaboration. 

The institution is also the right size in the sense of serving a large and diverse patient population in New Jersey, which is so important for cancer research. I’m already working with some really brilliant researchers and physician-scientists here, like Eileen White and Shridar Ganesan, Howard Hochster, and Andy Evens, and many others. 

PG: But you’re also combining immunology with metabolism, which I guess is something that few institutions do. Does anybody else?

CH: The program is distinguished by a concerted connection and collaboration across immunology and metabolism. This is a particular strength that has evolved from the work of Eileen White. She has built up a very strong metabolism program. Her longtime work in this area with Joshua Rabinowitz at Princeton University, our NCI research consortium partner, is now providing an opportunity for additional collaboration. 

Recently, the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research created a Princeton Branch, which is being led by Josh – Eileen is the associate director of the new Branch. The work of the Ludwig Princeton Branch, coupled with the work of our Cancer Immunology and Metabolism Center of Excellence at Rutgers will provide additional collaborative opportunities to translate metabolism related research into human trials through RWJBarnabas Health and elsewhere. 

PG: Can we go through the basic science of the rationale of combining immunotherapy with metabolism? Is there a way of kind of walking me through it, maybe on the sixth-grade level?

CH: At a fundamental level, you can look at it from the perspective of the T cells and from the perspective of the tumor. There is substantial and growing evidence that the way T cells make and utilize energy can determine their therapeutic potential in cancer immunotherapy. 

Understanding and controlling these processes might increase T cell effectiveness in cancer treatment. There is also is growing evidence around the importance of tumor metabolism in tumor growth and in tumor susceptibility and resistance the immune system. 

PG: Can we talk about your work in cell therapy? Where does the science take you in the clinic, and what’s your vision for translating the science into interventions?

CH: Cell therapy is a particularly potent way to target cancers. We are focused on the discovery and development of new T cell therapies, particularly gene-engineering approaches that allow T cells to specifically and powerfully target tumors. We have recent discoveries from the laboratory that are showing promise in the clinic, such as tumor-infiltrating T cell therapy and engineered E7 TCR-T cell therapy for human papillomavirus-associated cancers. 

And we have other even newer discoveries that we will be translating into clinical trials soon, such as the KK-LC-1 TCR for certain gastric, lung, breast, and cervical cancers. In the meanwhile, we are also working through a number of strategies to discover new TCRs to target additional types of cancer and new technologies to increase the potency of the therapeutic T cell platform.

PG: Can we talk about the NCI intramural program? It’s always been regarded as a sheltering place where ideas can grow.

CH: The intramural program was a great place for my research program as it was initiated, and it’s been a great place for the research that I’ve done to date. The extramural program, of course, is a different world, but it brings in a lot of important components that can accelerate the research. And this includes new collaborations.

It also includes joining the Center of Excellence with Eileen White and working with my colleagues here at Rutgers Cancer Institute, and the important crossover research that we’re doing now with metabolism. And importantly, it includes, the patients of New Jersey that are treated at this NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in collaboration with the oncology service line at 11 hospitals across the RWJBarnabas Health system. 

So, the NCI intramural program was indeed a great place to get started. I think the transition to the extramural program at Rutgers Cancer Institute and within the Center of Excellence affords a great opportunity to accelerate growth of my research.

PG: Well, you’ve got an enormous health system at Rutgers. That must be very helpful.

CH: It’s great to be grounded and connected with the patients. And it’s also great from a clinical research standpoint.

PG: How many patients do you need for your trials?

CH: Most of the early development can be done in relatively small phase I trials. The last two phase I trials I conducted had only 12 patients. Careful trial design and deep translational research can really help us learn a lot from each patient. And decisive advances have come from each trial. We do need to screen a larger number of patients for trial eligibility though because the treatments are so targeted.  

PG: What was it like to start a new program at the time of COVID? Are you able to get to the lab? 

CH: Rutgers has taken a thoughtful, pragmatic approach. They have all of the precautions to work safely. And the laboratories and the clinical research have stayed remarkably productive.

PG: I’ve been asking this question a lot last year. How far are we from the point where immunology and infectious disease, and oncology are kind of starting to converge into a single area. Is that still a generation away or is that happening? Is that even real?

CH: I think it’s very much happening. It’s an interesting question for you to ask me, because much of my research is the study of targeting viral antigens for the treatment of cancer. Steven Libutti, our cancer center director, recently made the point that the vaccine platforms that we’re using now for COVID have been largely developed in the tumor immunology cancer setting. My work includes some research that might be applied to either cancer or infection.

PG: Are you getting close now to where you might be able to develop a drug for one thing and use it for across indications, in virology, immunology and oncology?

CH: Certainly, in virally-induced cancers the connection there is clear, and the treatments that target viruses in one setting may well be applicable to the other setting. There is potential for crossover. It’s happening now.

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