Pioneering Physician-Scientist to Receive 2019 Szent-Györgyi Prize


Pioneering Physician-Scientist to Receive 2019 Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research

February 12, 2019

National Foundation for Cancer Research
Bradley Gillenwater, Senior Director for Global Programs & Communications
E-mail: / Phone: 301-961-9161

Awardee Has Remained at the Vanguard of Various Cancer Immunotherapy Fields for over Four Decades

ROCKVILLE, MD – The National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) announced today that Steven A. Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D., of the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) has been selected to receive the 2019 Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research. The Prize selection committee awarded Dr. Rosenberg for not only revolutionizing—if not originating—the field now known as cancer immunotherapy but also remaining at its forefront. Chief of the NCI Center for Cancer Research’s surgery branch in Bethesda since 1974, his basic, translational and applied research efforts have contributed immeasurably to groundbreaking advances in therapy and the later development of drugs such as Chiron’s (later Novartis and Prometheus Labs’) Proleukin, Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Yervoy and Gilead’s Yescarta.

Dr. Rosenberg’s legacy was cemented by 1992, when his earlier clinical trial studies on the use of an immune cell secretion, a cytokine called interleukin 2 (IL-2), led to the very first approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of a cancer immunotherapy. But his impacts continued beyond only cytokine therapy, which entails enhancements to the human immune system, into various forms of treatments wherein the immune system is itself engineered to battle cancers. These include checkpoint inhibition and two forms of adoptive cell transfer therapies.

Research breakthroughs and discoveries made by Dr. Rosenberg are myriad and comprise a remarkable body of work with lasting impact in saving people’s lives from cancer. When put into the context of cancer immunotherapy in the 1970s as having been in as fledgling a stage as was the young man’s career, his contributions are all the more outstanding. At that time, little evidence existed that the human body’s immune system could be engineered to combat cancer or even that any form of immune response against tumors existed.

Dr. Rosenberg’s research defined the ability of IL-2 to bolster the growth of anti-tumor T lymphocytes—an important type of white blood cell commonly referenced as T cells—first in mice and later humans, both in vitro and in vivo. This work coalesced in a seminal 1985 publication that would lead seven years later to approval of a treatment for patients with metastatic renal cancer, the first FDA-approved cancer immunotherapy. It remains the only systemic treatment currently available that is capable of curing patients with the disease in such an advanced state. In 1998, the drug was also FDA-approved for metastatic melanoma.

Another pivotal study, back in 1988, would establish Dr. Rosenberg as a creator of adoptive cell transfer, whereby cells, especially T cells, are removed, nurtured into vast exponential growth and reintroduced into the same patient. Over the subsequent three-plus decades, he and his NCI team’s work would deliver virtually unmatched impact in the first branch of the field, CAR-T therapy, and be responsible for the most promising current findings in the second, tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte (TIL) therapy.

Dr. Rosenberg in 2010 was the first in the world to report successful human cancer treatment with adoptive CAR-T cells. Industry collaboration with him would lead directly in October 2017 to one of the first two FDA-approved adoptive cell cancer therapies—for various forms of otherwise non-responsive lymphoma. While his team’s late stage clinical trials of its lead in-house TIL therapy candidate have produced encouraging results among a cross section of solid tumors, including those of breast, liver and colorectal cancers.

Other extraordinary cancer immunotherapy contributions made by Dr. Rosenberg include those in the fields of gene therapy and checkpoint inhibitors. In 1990, his team was the first to introduce foreign genes into humans—in the form of genetically modified T cells. In 2003, he provided the first demonstration in humans that the CTLA-4 inhibiting antibody developed by Dr. James Allison (2014 Szent-Györgyi and 2018 Nobel Prize winner) could induce cancer regression.

The 2019 Szent-Györgyi Prize’s selection committee was unanimous in its decision to recognize Dr. Rosenberg’s contributions. He will be honored at an award ceremony held Saturday, April 27th at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Media are invited and encouraged to attend.

“Dr. Rosenberg not only pioneered development of effective gene and immunotherapeutics but continues to innovate and inspire,” said Karen E. Knudsen, Ph.D., enterprise director of the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, chair of the Thomas Jefferson University’s department of cancer biology and member of the 2019 Szent-Györgyi Prize selection committee. “The impact of his discoveries on patients with advanced cancer has been nothing short of remarkable.”

“Dr. Rosenberg is without a doubt one of the ‘Fathers of Cancer Immunotherapy’,” echoed Carlo Croce, M.D., professor of internal medicine at The Ohio State University, winner of the 2008 Szent-Györgyi Prize and member of its 2019 selection committee. “This prestigious award is the recognition of his seminal and revolutionary work in starting and developing this extremely important field.”

“The impact of Dr. Rosenberg’s discoveries and pioneering work is phenomenal for cancer patients and for the research community,” expressed Sujuan Ba, Ph.D., co-chair of the 2019 Prize selection committee and president and CEO of NFCR. “His accomplishments in immunotherapy are the embodiment of what NFCR’s Szent-Györgyi Prize entails and he richly deserves this prestigious honor.”

“I am honored to join the outstanding scientists who were prior recipients of this prestigious prize,” stated Dr. Rosenberg. “The ongoing development of immunotherapy holds substantial promise for further improving the treatment of patients with cancer.”

About the Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research

The Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research was established in 2006 by the National Foundation for Cancer Research in honor of its co-founder, Albert Szent-Györgyi, M.D., Ph.D., recipient of the 1937 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. The award recognizes and honors scientists who have made seminal discoveries or produced pioneering bodies of work that have resulted in, or led toward significant contributions to, cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment with a high impact of saving people’s lives. Its past recipients (and their associated institutions at the time of the award) are:

  • Douglas R. Lowy, M.D., U.S. National Cancer Institute, 2018 (shared)
  • John T. Schiller, Ph.D., U.S. National Cancer Institute, Laboratory of Cellular Oncology, 2018 (shared)
  • Michael N. Hall, Ph.D., Biozentrum of the University of Basel, Switzerland, 2017
  • Mary-Claire King, Ph.D., University of Washington School of Medicine, 2016
  • Frederick W. Alt, Ph.D., Boston Children’s Hospital & Harvard Medical School, 2015
  • James Allison, Ph.D., University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, 2014
  • Alex Matter, M.D., Experimental Therapeutics Centre & D3, A*STAR, Singapore, 2013
  • Zhu Chen, M.D., Ph.D., Chinese Ministry of Health, 2012 (shared)
  • Zhen-Yi Wang, M.D., Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, 2012 (shared)
  • Beatrice Mintz, Ph.D., Fox Chase Cancer Center, 2011
  • Peter K. Vogt, Ph.D., Scripps Research Institute, 2010
  • Ronald A. DePinho, M.D., Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, 2009
  • Carlo M. Croce, M.D., The Ohio State University, 2008
  • Webster K. Cavenee, Ph.D., Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, University of California San Diego, 2007
  • Harold F. Dvorak, M.D., Harvard Medical School & Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, 2006

Along with Doctors Ba, Croce and Knudsen, the 2019 Szent-Györgyi Prize’s selection committee included non-voting co-chairs Doctors Lowy and Schiller and the following persons, each an authority in the field of cancer research:

  • Frederick W. Alt, Boston Children’s Hospital & Harvard Medical School
  • Webster K. Cavenee, Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, University of California San Diego
  • Brian Druker, Oregon Health Sciences University
  • Michael N. Hall, Biozentrum of the University of Basel
  • Mary-Claire King, University of Washington School of Medicine
  • Michelle Le Beau, University of Chicago
  • Alex Matter, Experimental Therapeutics Centre & D3, A*STAR, Singapore
  • Thea Tltsy, University of California San Francisco
  • Peter K. Vogt, Scripps Research Institute

About the 2019 Named Prize Winner

Dr. Rosenberg is chief of the surgery branch at the U.S. National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research and a professor of surgery at both the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences and George Washington University’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He received his B.A. and M.D. degrees at Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. at Harvard University. After completing his residency training in surgery in 1974 at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, Dr. Rosenberg assumed the NCI position which he still holds today. He has published over 1,100 papers in peer-reviewed literature and over 30 books.

About the National Foundation for Cancer Research

The National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that provides scientists in the lab the funding they need to make and apply game-changing discoveries in cancer treatments, detection, prevention and, ultimately, a cure. It has distinguished itself in the cancer sector by emphasizing long-term, transformative research often overlooked by other major funding sources. With the help of more than 5.3 million individual donors over the last 46 years, NFCR has delivered more than $380 million in funding to public education and cancer research leading to several important, life-saving discoveries. For more information, visit