Jeffrey Weber Joins NYU Langone, Plans to Expand Clinical Trial and Immunotherapy Initiatives

Immunotherapy expert Jeffrey Weber, MD, PhD, will join NYU Langone Medical Center's Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center as its deputy director and co-director of its melanoma program.

Jeffrey S. Weber, MD, PhD

Immunotherapy expert Jeffrey Weber, MD, PhD, joined NYU Langone Medical Center’s Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center as its deputy director and co-director of its melanoma program. Weber also oversees the center’s work in experimental therapeutics.

The addition of Weber is a testament to NYU Langone’s commitment to expanding its early-stage clinical trial efforts, said Benjamin G. Neel, MD, PhD, director of the Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone.

“My number one priority right now is to increase clinical trials, in particular investigational and early-phase trials, and I think Jeff’s experience as a long-standing clinical investigator and his expertise in immunotherapy is going to help us beef up our program,” said Neel. “Jeff has a great knowledge of the clinical trial arena and the experimental therapeutics arena. I think he is going to add a lot to the center.”

Since 2007, Weber has served as director of the Donald A. Adam Comprehensive Melanoma Research Center at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, in Tampa, Florida. His research focuses on experimental therapeutics and drug development, particularly in the areas of immunotherapy and checkpoint inhibitory antibody development in melanoma and other tumor types. His laboratory monitors and characterizes how T cells respond in patients with cancer who are undergoing immunotherapy. In addition, he established laboratory models to further understand how the use of antibodies that “take the brakes off” the immune system has promoted the use of immunotherapy in patients with cancer.

OncLive: What are your main goals in your new position?

Why do you specifically focus your efforts on expanding phase I clinical trials?

OncLive spoke with Weber to learn more about his goals for his new position and his views on the field of immunotherapy.Dr Weber: I have multiple goals. First off, I plan to continue to do interesting and innovative immunotherapy clinical trials. My second goal is to establish a phase I immunotherapy investigational clinical trial unit that is second to none at NYU, and my third goal is to help bring the translational clinical trial effort at NYU up to the next level. There are a lot of very good scientists, patient-care physicians, and clinical researchers there, and my job is to bring them all together and coordinate so that it raises the level of clinical research and cancer at the institution—not just in immunotherapy, but across the boardIn our business, clinical trials are the key to accessing very innovative and interesting drugs. A lot of the pharmaceutical companies need to do the very careful toxicity and correlative marker studies early on when they develop their immunologic agents, but there are not a lot of people around the United States that have the expertise to do that well.

Why did you choose NYU as the center to join to achieve these goals?

Also, a lot of the smaller pharmaceutical companies lack the big resources to go to the large cancer centers right in the beginning of their research. We certainly hope to attract the smaller pharmaceutical companies that are working on innovative drugs and combinations, and have them bring their studies to us for their first-in-human studies. It is always the same places that are constantly doing the first-in-human studies, and we would like to establish NYU as one of those destinations.New York is the city of the 21st century in my view. It is an amazing place to be. I think NYU has the resources, the infrastructure, the new hospitals and research buildings, and the vision by the dean and senior leadership that is needed to succeed. They also have a lot of patients; New York is a huge city. It has all of the elements that I am looking for in a place to try and excel the field of immunotherapy.

Where do you envision the field of immunotherapy going next?

How has the perception of immunotherapy evolved in recent years?

From a regulatory standpoint, what changes are needed to move immunotherapy forward?

I am really excited about the move. It is a great opportunity and I think there will be a lot of growth at NYU. You want to be at a place with an upward trajectory, and I think I will get that there for sure.I see options for new technologies, new fusion molecules, and new complex molecules. I envision possibilities for exploring the use of cytokines and agonistic molecules. There are also several possibilities for cell therapy in the future. Hopeful options include the use of bioengineered compounds, and the use of cytokine and other fusion proteins and complexes that better replicate the reality of what happens in the immune system. We need to find novel combinations that will be able to overcome the suppression in the tumor microenvironment and make the existing drugs work better.Before immunotherapy expanded outside of melanoma, it did not really have much respect. There never was a lot of credibility given to it. Now, things have changed. People are excited because there is activity in lung cancer, bladder cancer, and head and neck cancer. Everyone is interested. Melanoma had no respect and now it does, simply because there is activity in other cancer types. It clearly has led the way in immunotherapy and it will continue to do so for a long time. Luckily, that is my field of interest. I have been in this business for nearly 30 years.The IRC criteria has not been accepted for registration by the FDA. Eventually, some variation on the IRC criteria will make its way into the mainstream. That will happen over time. Right now, it is understandably regarded by the FDA as an unverified set of endpoints, but I think they will get there.

What first got you interested in melanoma and immunotherapy research?

This will change the way drugs get approved. It will probably make it easier for some immunotherapies to get approved if we use IRC criteria.I got started when I was in the surgery branch of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). After my first fellowship, I was kind of [uncertain] in terms of what I wanted to focus on. I was not quite sure what direction to take.

Dr Steven Rosenberg (chief, Surgery Branch, senior investigator, Head, Tumor Immunology Section, NCI) guided me to work on a project in immunotherapy. That is how I became interested and became a believer in immunotherapy. Previously, I was an immunologic cynic; I wasn’t that impressed that the immune system could have a big impact on cancer. However, Steven made me a believer and I am a believer to this day. I think the facts have proven I made the right choice in my interest in immunotherapy. I got started with immunotherapy in general with the Rosenberg group at the NCI and that naturally led to an interest in melanoma.