Translational researcher Larry Kwak explores lymphoma therapy's frontier

May 30, 2015 | by City of Hope Staff

Larry Kwak Translational research expert Larry Kwak unites the lab with the clinic, bringing new therapies to patients.

His voice sounds distant and a bit distorted. The phone isn’t working properly. A second and third attempt to make the connection fail as well, so he patiently offers his cell phone number, not a hint of frustration apparent in his voice. The fourth time’s a charm; the connection is crystal-clear.

Larry Kwak, M.D., Ph.D., a recognized expert in the clinical management of patients with low-grade lymphomas and a highly acclaimed cancer researcher, thoughtfully answers the questions posed to him. He is careful to choose the right words, not for fear of mistakes, but to ensure his listener understands his meaning. It's easy to see why he is beloved by patients and highly respected as a researcher.

Kwak, in fact, is world-renowned for his expertise as a translational research scientist and physician. Formerly chair of the lymphoma and myeloma department at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, he joined City of Hope in a key leadership role within the  Hematologic Malignancies and Stem Cell Transplantation Institute. He is director of the Toni Stephenson Lymphoma Center, shaping the next generation of research and treatments for all types of lymphoma.

Bringing new therapies to patients quickly

Kwak also serves as the inaugural associate director for developmental therapeutics and translational research for the City of Hope's comprehensive cancer center. He also is the first to hold the title of Dr. Michael Friedman Professor in Translational Medicine.

Known for his ability to bring together and lead effective research teams, he excels at integrating basic discoveries in academic laboratories with translational clinical development.

“What makes me excited to come to work every morning — my passion — is moving lab discoveries to clinic,” he says. “One of my key roles will be to help our faculty develop their ideas and bring them to first-in-human clinical trials.”

At City of Hope, Kwak aims to build on the institution's unique ability to speed the translational research process.

The culture of bench-to-bedside research here is remarkable,” he says. “City of Hope has a unique ability to advance homegrown discoveries to first-in-human clinical trials.”

Among the world’s 100 most influential people

Kwak has committed decades to the science of cancer immunotherapy, a field of research that aims to harness the body's immune system to fight malignancy. In 2010, the work earned him a place among the TIME100, TIME magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Notable among his accomplishments is the complete development of one of the first effective cancer vaccines. “We were able to do all the steps to bring the vaccine to patients — starting in the lab, then proving it was safe and testing its effectiveness in a series of clinical trials,” he says.

The vaccine, targeting follicular lymphoma, was one of the first phase III cancer vaccine trials reporting a positive effect.

The roots of his passion for fighting cancer

Kwak's interest in using immunotherapy to cure cancer stems from his high school days, and an internship with a pathologist.

“At the end of day, he would spend hours with me looking at slides of cancer cells,” Kwak says. “He would show me the immune cells clustering near tumors. It made me think, 'What were they doing there?'” The question would lead Kwak to a storied quest to harness the immune system to fight cancer.

Now, as he builds his research program at City of Hope, Kwak aims to improve on the vaccine-based immunotherapy for which he is renowned. He is interested in collaborating with his new colleagues to “combine vaccine therapy with other exciting new methods such as the CAR-T cell immunotherapy that City of Hope is advancing,” he said.

Recognized research expertise

While at MD Anderson Cancer Center, he garnered extensive support for his research. This included two Specialized Programs of Research Excellence grants — in lymphoma and multiple myeloma — from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and a Specialized Center of Research Program project grant awarded by The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Prior to his role at MD Anderson, Kwak served as head of the Vaccine Biology Section, Experimental Transplantation and Immunology Branch, at the NCI for 12 years, and his laboratory was credited with the bench-to-clinic development of a therapeutic cancer vaccine for B-cell malignancies.

Steven T. Rosen, M.D., City of Hope's provost and chief scientific officer, was instrumental in bringing Kwak to City of Hope. Rosen, who also is director of the City of Hope's comprehensive cancer center and the Irell & Manella Cancer Center Director's Distinguished Chair, expressed his enthusiasm for Kwak's arrival at City of Hope.

“Dr. Kwak’s remarkable expertise in translational research and hematologic malignancies make him a uniquely perfect fit for City of Hope,” he said. “His ability to guide research breakthroughs from the lab to the clinic will help us break new ground in the treatment of a variety of cancers, including lymphoma and other blood and bone marrow diseases, and we’re extremely pleased to have him on board.”

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