Scientific Director of the Belfer Center for Applied Cancer Science Receives the American Cancer Society’s 2024 Medal of Honor

On January 6, 2024, the American Cancer Society awarded its highest accolade, the 2024 Medal of Honor, to Dr. Pasi A. Jänne, a renowned figure at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Jänne is the Scientific Director of the Belfer Center for Applied Cancer Science.

Jänne receiving the 2024 Medal of Honor highlights his remarkable work in cancer research, especially in advancing lung cancer treatments. The Medal of Honor Ceremony, held in Washington, D.C., also shined a light on the ongoing efforts in the fight against cancer.

“He and his colleagues at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have changed the face of personalized care in lung cancer, and we’re very proud at ACS to have been the first external funder of his work as a junior investigator,” Arif Kamal, the American Cancer Society’s Chief Patient Officer, stated in a LinkedIn post.

This award, initiated in 1949 and originally known as the American Cancer Society Award, recognizes outstanding contributions to the fight against cancer, including advancements in basic research, cancer control, clinical research, and philanthropy.

Dr. Pasi Jänne’s Notable Contributions

Jänne, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology, has significantly impacted lung cancer treatment through his pioneering research. He played a pivotal role in discovering epidermal growth factor receptor mutations, fundamentally changing therapeutic approaches for patients with EGFR-mutant lung cancer.

His innovative work extends beyond research. Jänne is lauded for his visionary thinking, collaborative approach, and exceptional leadership in oncology. His dedication to developing precise and enduring therapies for lung cancer patients and his role as a mentor in the scientific community are particularly noteworthy, including his work with the Belfer Center for Applied Cancer Science.

Jänne’s medical journey began at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his medical degree and doctorate in 1996. He completed his postgraduate training in internal medicine at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and in medical oncology at Dana-Farber in 2001.

The Belfer Center for Applied Cancer Science: A Historical Perspective

The Belfer Center for Applied Cancer Science at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is an asset in oncology research. Established through the generous contributions of Robert and Renée Belfer, the center aims to translate cutting-edge scientific discoveries into more effective cancer treatments.

The foundation of the Belfer Center was a landmark moment in the history of Dana-Farber. An initial investment of $10 million in 2006 by the Belfers enabled the Center to integrate scientific teams, produce innovative cancer models, and partner with leading industry entities. This strategic collaboration has been instrumental in accelerating revolutionary therapies for cancer treatment.

A focal point of the Belfer Center is its commitment to immuno-oncology, a field that harnesses the body’s immune system to fight cancer. An additional gift from the Belfers in 2015, amounting to more than $35 million in total contributions, has propelled research in this area, particularly in predicting responses to cancer immunotherapy and improving patient outcomes. This funding supports the development of patient-derived organotypic spheroids, also known as “tumor-on-a-chip,” and Dana-Farber’s mass spectrometry technology for the detection of neoantigen peptides, small proteins found only on tumor cells.

The center’s mission is bolstered by its collaboration with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, aiming to bring basic and preclinical scientific breakthroughs to market. Its focus areas include immuno-oncology, drug resistance, novel target discovery, and blood-based biomarkers.

The leadership team, consisting of scientific co-directors Jänne and David Barbie, M.D., along with Cloud Paweletz, Ph.D., head of research, plays a pivotal role. Their collective expertise in academic and industry research, development, and collaboration underscores the Center’s commitment to transforming cancer biology and treatment insights into new advancements.

The Belfer Center’s integration within the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and its affiliation with Harvard Medical School enables a comprehensive approach to cancer research, encompassing academic and industrial research components to drive clinical trials and improve patient care.

Search for a Cure

According to a report from the National Cancer Institute, in 2023, roughly 2 million people in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer. Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis.

The American Cancer Society has been at the forefront of the battle against cancer for over a century. As a leader in the space, it focuses on advocacy, research, and patient support, aiming to eradicate cancer. It provides a 24/7 helpline and maintains a strong presence on social media platforms, ensuring widespread access to information and support.

The ACS, founded in 1913, has evolved substantially. Initially known as the American Society for the Control of Cancer, its primary mission was to raise public awareness about cancer, a disease shrouded in fear and denial at the time. Recognizing the need for widespread education, the ASCC’s founders published articles in magazines and journals and engaged doctors nationwide in public education efforts.

In 1936, the organization witnessed a pivotal moment in forming the Women’s Field Army, a volunteer force dedicated to cancer control. This initiative fundamentally expanded the society’s reach and impact. By the 1940s, it became evident that a shift in focus to research was essential. Influential philanthropists like Mary Lasker played a key role in this transition, leading to the ASCC’s reorganization into the American Cancer Society in 1945. That year, the ACS raised more than $4 million, a notable portion of which was allocated to research.

Since its inception, the ACS has invested over $5 billion in research, contributing to many cancer treatment and prevention breakthroughs, such as developing the first successful chemotherapy treatment and significant advancements in understanding the links between lifestyle factors like smoking and cancer risk.

The ACS also provides critical assistance to cancer patients and their families. For example, the Reach to Recovery program, initiated in 1969, connects breast cancer patients with survivors for support. Another crucial initiative is the Hope Lodge facilities, offering free lodging to those undergoing treatment.

In addition to patient support, the ACS focuses on health equity, recognizing the importance of addressing disparities in cancer outcomes among communities. Programs like Impact aim to reduce the prostate cancer disparity gap in black men, and Road to Recovery provides transportation for patients needing a ride to treatment.

Additionally, the ACS engages in advocacy and community mobilization efforts. Its role in the passage of the 1971 National Cancer Act, which significantly increased federal funding for cancer research, and the establishment of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network in 2001 highlights its dedication to shaping governmental policies aimed at cancer prevention and treatment.