Scott Antonia, MD, PhD Named Director of Duke Institute’s Center for Cancer Immunology

“It was a difficult decision,” said Antonia, who will be leaving H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute after 25 years to begin the next chapter of his life in Durham, NC, “But I plan to continue to mentor junior folks (at Moffitt) and collaborate on research projects,” he added.  Dr. Antonia was kind enough to carve out some time to speak with two of us from the board of “Prelude to a Cure” about his journey to be names director of Duke Institute‚Äôs Center for Cancer Immunology.  We asked him how a boy who enjoyed outdoor sports with aspirations of being a farmer became one of the country’s leading cancer researchers?

Dr. Scott Antonia

“I worked on farms baling hay and shoveling pig manure so I always thought I’d be a farmer,” explained Antonia. He was the young man who spent his free time water skiing, kayaking, sailing, scuba diving and backpacking.  He liked biology in high school, but it wasn’t until midway through college that he became interested in immunology while working in a lab.

Antonia received his MD and PhD in Immunology from the University of Connecticut and later completed an internal medicine residency at Yale University School of Medicine where his postdoctoral fellowship focused on immunobiology. He joined Moffitt in 1994 because he was impressed by their serious commitment to clinical research and the “wide open opportunity” presented by Jack Ruckdeschel, MD who recruited him.  During his latest tenure as Department Chair of the Thoracic Oncology Department he continued to build a program that has made significant strides in the understanding and treatment of cancer.  While his research reaches beyond Thoracic Oncology he still likes to refer to himself as “A lung cancer Doc.”

He recalls the first significant treatment breakthrough, known as Molecular Targeted Therapies, yielding dramatic results for only 10% to 15% of the patients who were treated with it.  This was clearly not good enough for a guy who pursues high-risk with high-reward studies which can produce dramatic results.  Antonia describes immunotherapy as a “game changer” since it can almost double a lung cancer patient’s overall survival rates versus chemotherapy.

“The most exciting thing is that people can remain in response for years,” said Antonia.  “We’e lifted the tail of the survival rate.”

 Antonia has been the recipient of several prestigious national research grants.  The National Institute of Health (NIH) awarded Antonia a series of K24 grants to support developing Immunotherapeutic Strategies in the Treatment of Lung Cancer, he was the principal investigator for Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE’s) presented to the Thoracic Oncology Department and he received a $2.67 million dollar Stand Up to Cancer Catalyst Program award in 2017.  However, for every successful grant submission there are far more that go unfunded.  He talked about the challenges associated with limited resources dedicated to cancer research pointing out that the NIH contributes less than 10% of the total dollars invested annually.  The remaining 90% is provided through private foundations, individual donors, non-profit organizations and pharmaceutical companies.

“Ideas are not limiting, funding is,” said Antonia.

The frustration of promising ideas not being cultivated was the catalyst for Lary Robinson, MD to join forces with Antonia to create Prelude to a Cure, a non-profit 501(c)3 organization.  The mission of this completely volunteer charity is to provide critical “seed” funding for investigators to demonstrate the potential of their novel ideas to then parlay them into larger funding applications.  

“A large grant will never be funded without preliminary data,” explained Antonia.

The Barbara Bauer Innovative Lung Cancer Research Grant awards $50,000 to deserving scientists to build upon their ideas by establishing additional data.  Bauer (a non-smoker diagnosed with small cell lung cancer in 2011) believed wholeheartedly in the importance of research leading to clinical trials.  Prelude to a Cure has has presented two of these grants in memory of Bauer and others who have left us too soon.  A request for proposals will be announced soon for the third grant to be awarded this fall in Memory of Charles Williams Jr, MD.  

At a recent Prelude to a Cure meeting Robinson announced Antonia’s plans to join Duke Cancer Institute as an opportunity that was just too good for him to pass up.  

“Scott is really a rock star in the field of Immunotherapy,” said Robinson.

We smiled near the end of the interview when Antonia told us he’s keeping his sailboat slip in St. Petersburg.  Now we know he’ll be back from time to time meeting with colleagues and then casting off the dock lines and heading out for a sunset sail on Tampa Bay.  Can’t do that in Durham.

Interview with Kathryn King and Deborah Ploor on February 12, 2019.