Cancer cell therapy pioneer Carl June receives the Sanford Lorraine Cross Award
Carl June, professor in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies in the Abramson Cancer Center.

World-renowned cancer cell therapy pioneer Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, received the $1 million Sanford Lorraine Cross Award for his groundbreaking work in developing chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy.

Sanford Health, the only health system in the country to award a $1 million prize for achievements in the medical sciences, announced the award on April 13 at a special ceremony in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The biennial award recognizes life-changing breakthroughs and bringing emerging transformative medical innovations to patients.

“This is a well-deserved and exciting award for one of Penn’s most distinguished faculty members, whose pioneering research has reshaped the fight against cancer and brought fresh hope for both adults and children with the disease,” says J. Larry Jameson, executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine. “His contributions truly have been transformative for patients across the globe and taken the field of oncology in new and powerful directions.”

Finalists for the award are determined through a rigorous selection process that uses machine learning to identify innovative areas of discovery and breakthrough science. The candidate selection is then focused on the areas with the most promising potential for patients. Two other finalists for this year’s Sanford Lorraine Cross Award were honored at the ceremony, including Mark Denison, of Vanderbilt University who has studied coronaviruses since the 1980s, and Michael Welsh, of the University of Iowa, a pulmonary physician.

“This was an amazing and accomplished group of finalists, so it’s an honor and a thrill to be receiving this award,” says June, who also serves as the director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Penn.

He is the second Penn Medicine faculty member to receive the prize since its establishment three years ago. In December 2018, Jean Bennett, the F.M. Kirby Professor of Ophthalmology in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, and Katherine A. High, president of Spark Therapeutics, received the inaugural Sanford Lorraine Cross Award for their cutting-edge work that led to the first gene therapy for an inherited disease.

June and his lab discovered several basic scientific principles in the 1980s and 1990s of how the cells in the immune system work to fight cancer and infections. His lab would go on to conduct the first clinical evaluation of gene-modified T cells, initially in people with HIV/AIDS and then in patients with advanced leukemia using CAR T cell therapy, the approach that retrains a patient’s own immune cells to attack cancer. The cellular therapy was awarded “Breakthrough Therapy” status by the FDA for acute leukemia in children and adults in 2014 and was approved as the first personalized cellular therapy for cancer, Kymriah, in 2017. It is now used to treat pediatric and adult blood cancer patients worldwide.

June, who has published more than 500 manuscripts, has received numerous prizes and honors, including election into the Institute of Medicine in 2012, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014, and the National Academy of Sciences in 2020, and the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize. In 2017, he was named a fellow of the American Association for Cancer Research Academy and received the David A. Karnofsky Memorial Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology. He was most recently named a 2021 Dan David Prize Laureate.

This story originally ran in Penn Medicine News.