At age 8, Elizabeth Jaffee, MD, lost her great uncle to lung cancer. “It really hit me hard that somebody I knew and liked was dead,” she says. That loss, and tagging along with her aunt to American Cancer Society fundraisers, planted the seeds of a career in cancer research.
As a Brandeis University undergraduate in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jaffee became fascinated with immunology, a growing area of medical research using the body’s own defense system to fight disease.
“I had always thought the immune system could recognize cancer and kill it. Even though it was early in that concept, I was reading some hypotheses,” she says. “It got me very excited. I started thinking, ‘I’m going to become an oncologist.’”
At the time, chemotherapy was one of the few weapons doctors had against cancer. Chemo offered patients a little more time, but at the steep price of toxic side effects. Jaffee devoted her research to developing immune therapies that would improve the outlook for people with cancer without making them sick.
“Not only did I want to give people hope, I didn’t want to cause them discomfort. I wanted to give them hope with a good quality of life,” she says.
One focus of her research is on vaccines that prompt the immune system to track down and destroy cancer. Jaffee holds six cancer vaccine patents, including ones for pancreatic, colon, and breast cancers. Current projects include custom-designed vaccines that target specific mutations in a person’s tumors and a new treatment to slow the spread of pancreatic cancer.
Jaffee says research has turned once-deadly cancers into chronic diseases. She hopes future innovations will make more cancers manageable, and one day even preventable: “That’s a little bit longer goal, but I think it’s achievable.”