Leading Immunotherapy Researcher Lands in Qatar

Beth Fand Incollingo
Published Online: Friday, October 25, 2013
Dr. Francesco M.
MarincolaCourtesy of the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer

Francesco M. Marincola, MD

When Francesco M. Marincola, MD, decides it’s time for a change, he doesn’t leave any room for doubt.

Marincola made a bold move earlier this year when he left a longterm position as a tenured senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in Bethesda, Maryland, and moved nearly 7000 miles to the Middle East to build a research program at a private hospital in Qatar.

A few months later, the 60-year-old doctor, who remains president of the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC) with its roster of leading US researchers, symbolically wrapped up the previous 25 years of his career. He coauthored a paper in the journal Immunity that sets forth evidence that tumors have overlapping immune signatures that offer prognostic and predictive indicators of whether immunotherapy will result in positive outcomes, as well as a way to evaluate the impact of an immunotherapy on a tumor.1

Marincola, who also made a big change early in his career when he left his native Italy to study at Stanford University in California, took his latest leap because he was frustrated by limits on biomedical research in the United States—including restricted funding and insufficient support for the larger, more collaborative efforts he considers vital. As a result, the doctor said, he was eager to play a bigger role in “policy making and the strategy of research.”

At Sidra Medical and Research Center in Doha, where he stepped into the role of chief research officer eight months ago, Marincola is tasked with building a research program to rival the best in the Western world.

“Sidra’s focus is on women and child care, high-level care, and educating the health community, in addition to a very strong focus on research, particularly translational aspects of research,” said Marincola, who at the NIH also served as chief of the Infectious Disease and Immunogenetics Section. “We are building on the work of the many institutions in Qatar that are doing basic research, like Cornell University and others, and trying to create a research infrastructure that is closer to the patients. We’re looking for investigators interested in applying what they know directly to developmental therapeutics, or investigators who will try to understand the mechanisms of disease by studying patients. We’re supporting the research community in Qatar and the region by linking basic and clinical research and the patients.”

The end result, Marincola hopes, will be a “clinical research center where we can treat patients safely using nonstandard, experimental treatments in addition to tertiary level care. We want Sidra to be like the NIH, a place people go to seek alternative therapies when the standard fails.”

At the same time, he hopes, the program will stand as an example of what can be accomplished when research incorporates the level of collaboration truly needed to exploit today’s genomic investigation techniques.

Getting Started at Sidra

The privately owned Sidra is Qatar’s first academic hospital, and its focus on women and children is a reasonable starting point, since “there seems to be a higher incidence of perinatal problems in the country,” Marincola said. Many children are affected by genetic disorders, he noted, “because the population here in the Middle East and Northern Africa tend to marry within their families more frequently, which exposes them to a higher risk of diseases that are genetically dependent upon people from the same family who carry the same predisposition.”

To handle such problems, Marincola plans to establish a comprehensive program to identify genetic characteristics and biological mechanisms that predispose patients to the conditions, and then treat some of the diseases via genetic engineering.

“Sidra will be the engine to identify new diseases in collaboration with many groups across the world, along with the character of these diseases, validation of their cause, and treatment,” he said.

Marincola anticipates some challenges along the way, particularly since he’ll be setting up “a whole support system for research the way it’s done elsewhere, in a place that is geographically separated from most larger institutions.” On the other hand, the doctor said, starting the program from scratch may be an advantage, since there will be no need to change entrenched ways of doing things.

While building the program, Marincola intends to keep a smaller portion of his attention trained on his personal research efforts, starting with the relocation of his genetics lab, currently at NIH, to Sidra.

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