Penn Medicine’s Carl June to receive 2024 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

The Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the Perelman School of Medicine is honored for pioneering the development of CAR T cell therapy, which programs patients’ own immune cells to fight their cancer.

Carl June in a lab.
Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine

CAR T cell therapy pioneer Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies (CCI) at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, has been named a winner of the 2024 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for the development of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell immunotherapy, a revolutionary cancer treatment approach in which each patient’s T cells are modified to target and kill their cancer cells. The invention sparked a new path in cancer care, harnessing the power of patients’ own immune systems, a once-elusive goal that brought fresh options for those who could not be successfully treated with conventional approaches.

Founded in 2012, the Breakthrough Prizes are the world’s largest science awards, with $3 million awarded for each of the five main prize categories. June is the sixth Breakthrough Prize laureate from Penn, which joins Harvard and MIT among the institutions whose researchers have been honored with the most Breakthrough Prizes.

“This award is not only a testament to Dr. June’s outstanding contributions to science, but also a shining example of the caliber of discoveries and research which Penn faculty set their sights upon,” said Penn President Liz Magill. “We are immensely proud to have Dr. June as a member of the Penn academic community, and we know that CAR T cell therapy is just the first chapter in an inspiring and lifesaving new era of medicine.”

June is internationally recognized for his role in pioneering the CAR T cell therapy, which led to the first FDA-approved personalized cellular therapy, for children and young adults with the blood cancer known as acute lymphoblastic leukemia, in August of 2017—a step which has spurred five additional approvals of the technique in other blood cancers. June joined Penn in 1999, building momentum for Penn to become a global hub for cell and gene therapy. Gene-modified T cells engineered in June’s lab to retrain a patient’s own immune cells to attack cancer were used in the first clinical trial of CAR T cell therapy in 2010. Some of the earliest children and adults treated have experienced long-lasting remissions of 10 years or more. In addition to the FDA approvals that have made the therapy commercially available to patients across the world, thousands more have benefited from clinical trials testing these transformative treatments, including for the treatment of solid tumors and even autoimmune diseases like lupus.

“Dr. June’s tireless commitment to advancing T cell immunotherapy research has been life-changing for many patients affected by cancer, who have lived longer, fuller lives, thanks to the discoveries made in his lab,” said J. Larry Jameson, executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine. “We are proud to see one of Penn’s most esteemed scientists recognized for the impact of his foundational work to develop a new class of cancer immunotherapy treatment.”

In the decades since June began his CAR T cell research, the field has grown exponentially, with hundreds of CAR T cell clinical trials now in progress worldwide. June’s lab and the CCI team continue to drive innovation in personalized cell and gene based therapies, developing new strategies to make CAR T cell therapy more effective for all blood cancers, for solid tumors, and even for diseases beyond cancer. He has also made seminal contributions to HIV research, developing the first method to multiply T cells outside the body and showing that the cells could be safely reinfused into the patient, improving the patient's immune function. These techniques would later be applied to his cancer research.

June, who is also the director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Penn, is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Baylor College of Medicine. He has published more than 500 manuscripts and is the recipient of many prestigious scientific achievement awards, including the AACR Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research, the Keio Medical Science Prize, the Dan David Award, the William B Coley award, the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, the Richard V. Smalley Memorial Award from the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer, the AACR-CRI Lloyd J. Old Award in Cancer Immunology, the Philadelphia Award, the Taubman Prize for Excellence in Translational Medical Science, the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize, the Novartis Prize in Immunology, the Karl Landsteiner Memorial award, the Sanford Lorraine Cross Award, the Debrecen Award, and a lifetime achievement award from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. He is also a member of the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences.

In addition to his scientific accolades, June has been featured in hundreds of news outlets across the world, was named to the 2018 TIME 100 list of the most influential people in the world, and is the subject of a documentary film, “Of Medicine and Miracles,” which made its debut at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

Since its founding in 2013 by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki, the Breakthrough Prize has been given to standout individuals in life sciences, mathematics, and fundamental physics. Along with June, this year’s recipients are Michel Sadelain, Sabine Hadida, Paul Negulescu, Fredrick Van Goor, Thomas Gasser, Ellen Sidransky, and Andrew Singleton. The laureates will be celebrated April 13, 2024, at the 10th annual Breakthrough Prize ceremony, held in Los Angeles.

Penn researchers Drew Weissman, the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Katalin Karikó, an adjunct professor of neurosurgery, received the 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for their mRNA-based vaccine technology which formed a foundation for the two COVID-19 vaccines deployed across the world beginning in December 2020. In 2019, the prize went to Penn’s Virginia M.Y. Lee, the John H. Ware 3rd Professor in Alzheimer’s Research in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research at the University of Pennsylvania. Two other Penn faculty members, Charles Kane and Eugene Mele, won the 2019 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.