Abaco, Bahamas, April 13, 1999: Thirty-six scientists gathered on an isolated Bahamanian island last month for three days of off-the-record, freewheeling discussion and debate about cancer vaccine research. They left convinced that the meeting advanced the pursuit of vaccines to prevent and treat cancer. And Elliot L. Richardson, an architect of the “War on Cancer” said he is “excited” by the existence of a vaccine to prevent cancer and the prospect of more.
The First Walker’s Cay Colloquium on Cancer Vaccines and Immunotherapy was organized by the Albert B. Sabin Vaccine Institute. The think tank-style meeting was sponsored by the Walker’s Cay Corporation and the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation. Then-President Nixon declared “War on Cancer” 27 years ago. He was visiting Walker’s Cay, a small island in the Bahamas that was one of his favorite retreats, when he decided to make conquering cancer a national priority.
According to Mr. Richardson, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Nixon Administration, “If President Nixon were alive today, he would be thrilled by the progress you [colloquium participants] and your scientific colleagues have made. ”
Mr. Richardson marveled that vaccines to prevent cancer are becoming realities. Robert Marston, then-Director of the National Institutes of Health, Frank Rauscher, Director of the National Cancer Institute, and Mr. Richardson set the strategy for intensifying cancer research in the U.S. Mr. Richardson recalled, “We had faith that if we provided dedicated scientists with sufficient resources, they would, in time, discover the causes and mechanisms of cancer, and that these discoveries would lead to cures. But we scarcely dreamed of a day when there would be vaccines that could prevent cancer or mobilize the body’s own immune system to combat it.”
The Walker’s Cay Colloquium was distinctive for its small size and for drawing leading scientists from various disciplines, from microbiology to statistics. Discussion topics ranged from fundamental immunology to design of clinical trials. Participants called it “a monumental success” and “the best meeting I’ve ever attended.” Richard Bucala, head of the medical biochemistry laboratory at The Picower Institute for Medical Research explained, “These people normally go to meetings with people in their own disciplines, so they rarely get an opportunity to share their ideas and have them constructively challenged by colleagues who look at things differently because they come from different fields.”
The unique format of the meeting was no accident. “We set out to create a meeting that would be very different so it would encourage scientists to debate their theories and foster research collaborations, all to accelerate development of cancer vaccines,” said H. R. Shepherd, chairman of the Sabin Vaccine Institute. “We chose Walker’s Cay because of its historical significance and because it has an ideal atmosphere to stimulate the exchange of ideas and create a new sense of collegiality among many of the world’s top cancer immunologists, microbiologists and vaccinologists,” he added. “Numerous participants have told me they got new ideas to try in their laboratories, that the meeting was stimulating, and that the setting was conducive to vigorous and valuable exchange of ideas.”
Noting the axiom, “None of us is as smart as all of us,” Mr. Shepherd urged participants to consider joining a research consortium. He presented a concept document for a vaccine consortium prepared by W. Clark McFadden, an attorney who helped form the Sematech consortium for semiconductor manufacturing research. McFadden’s firm, Dewey Ballantine, recently developed the legal framework for a new high technology consortium. The Sabin Vaccine Institute would manage the proposed cancer vaccine research consortium.
Initially, colloquium participants were skeptical about a consortium but they urged Mr. Shepherd to develop the concept further. Benefits of a consortium would include a mechanism for ongoing research collaboration, the ability to attract more research funding, and faster commercialization of new technologies by industrial partners. Drew Pardoll, of Johns Hopkins University and James Allison, a Howard Hughes Fellow at the University of California, co-chaired the meeting.
Mr. Shepherd declared that, “Vaccines are the microchip that will revolutionize health care, including the way we approach cancer. Soon, simple vaccinations will eliminate the need for unpleasant and costly radiation, chemotherapy and surgical treatments for various forms of cancer.”
Scientists closely connected to an existing anti-cancer vaccine participated in the meeting. John Gerin, a member of the Sabin Vaccine Institute Scientific Advisory Committee, and colleagues proved that hepatitis B vaccine also prevents hepatocellular carcinoma, the most common type of cancer in the world. Another colloquium participant, A. Bennett Jenson, developed a vaccine to prevent human papillomavirus and cervical cancer, the second most prevalent women’s cancer. Dr. Jenson also is a member of the Sabin Vaccine Institute Scientific Advisory Committee.