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$10 million gift creates Bursky Center for Human Immunology and Immunotherapy

Research harnesses immune system against cancer, other diseases

by Julia Evangelou StraitSeptember 26, 2016

Robert Boston

Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has received a $10 million gift to support research that harnesses the immune system to fight cancer, infectious diseases, and disorders caused by autoimmunity and immune deficiencies.

The gift from Andrew M. and Jane M. Bursky will advance cutting-edge work at the newly named Andrew M. and Jane M. Bursky Center for Human Immunology and Immunotherapy Programs.

The gift also supports an endowed distinguished professorship for the center’s director, Robert D. Schreiber, PhD, the inaugural Andrew M. and Jane M. Bursky Distinguished Professor. Schreiber, who is highly regarded for his expertise in cancer immunotherapy, recently was named a senior adviser to the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative led by Vice President Joe Biden.

Andrew M. and Jane M. Bursky
Andrew M. and Jane M. Bursky

“Andy and Jane’s generous gift will be used not only to support the innovative work of Dr. Robert Schreiber but also to benefit the distinguished team of researchers and physicians who are members of the center,” said Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “These scientists are making incredible advances in the field of human immunology, with a goal of turning research advances into improved patient outcomes.”

Schreiber has led the center since its establishment in 2014 with a focus on nurturing the translation of basic discoveries in the lab into new therapies that hold the potential to help patients. He is well-known for his research in tumor immunology and cell signaling, and his work has been instrumental in helping distinguish the conflicting roles that the immune system can play in cancer, whether protective when preventing tumor growth or detrimental when unable to recognize and attack cancer cells.

Long known for its role in fighting infectious disease, the immune system more recently has been implicated in cancer and for its overactive role in autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

One major initiative supported by the new gift is the expansion of an ongoing effort to preserve blood and tissue from patients with different diseases that display immune system involvement. With patients’ permission, researchers will have access to blood and tissue samples before, during and after treatment in an effort to study a patient’s native immunity and how it might respond to different therapeutic strategies.  Such a resource could help doctors understand the reasons that a specific immune therapy is effective in some patients but not others.

“We are honored that Andrew and Jane Bursky have chosen to support human immunology research at Washington University through their generous gift,” Schreiber said. “With the strength of the immunotherapy programs at the School of Medicine combined with the sequencing power of the McDonnell Genome Institute, this new gift will help jumpstart major research initiatives in understanding and developing new immune-based therapeutics for a broad array of diseases.”

Fifteen years ago, Schreiber and his colleagues introduced the three-phase concept of cancer immunoediting. In the first phase, dubbed elimination, early cancer cells are destroyed by the immune system. Those cells that survive the initial onslaught then enter the second phase, termed equilibrium, characterized by a state of tumor dormancy. The final phase — escape — occurs when the surviving tumor cells, now adept at evading the immune system’s defenses, escape the dormant state and begin to grow. New cancer immune therapies such as those explored via this gift may focus on priming and retraining the immune system to once again attack these evasive cancer cells.

More recently, Schreiber and collaborators at Washington University pioneered the use of genomics approaches to identify mutant proteins uniquely expressed in a patient’s tumor that can target the individual’s cancer cells for immune destruction. This approach has formed the basis for major ongoing translational programs at Washington University School of Medicine and elsewhere to test the therapeutic efficacy of personalized vaccines in patients with cancers of the breast, brain, lung, pancreas, prostate, melanoma and certain forms of lymphoma. Beyond cancer research, other leading investigators at the center are studying important and emerging infectious diseases, including Zika, Ebola, West Nile and Chikungunya viruses.

Andrew Bursky is co-founder and chief executive officer of Atlas Holdings LLC, an industrial holding company based in Greenwich, Conn. Bursky also serves as chairman of the company, which employs more than 23,000 people worldwide and operates in a variety of industries, including aluminum, automotive, building materials, construction, distribution, energy, paper and packaging. He also serves as a member of the executive boards of the Eisenhower Fellowships and of No Labels, a bipartisan effort to encourage congressional action on key issues facing the nation.

The Burskys have deep connections to Washington University, where Andrew earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics and engineering and Jane earned a bachelor’s degree in French and education. Andrew Bursky serves as a university trustee and has received the School of Engineering & Applied Science Young Alumni and Alumni Achievement Awards and the Arts & Sciences Alumni Achievement Award. Together, they have provided scholarships for students, including establishing the Spirit of Washington University Scholarship.

Washington University School of Medicine‘s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient-care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Julia covers medical news in genomics, cancer, cardiology, developmental biology, biochemistry & molecular biophysics, and gut microbiome research. In 2022, she won a gold award for excellence in the Robert G. Fenley Writing Awards competition. Given by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the award recognized her coverage of long COVID-19. Before joining Washington University in 2010, she was a freelance writer covering science and medicine. She has a research background with stints in labs focused on bioceramics, human motor control and tissue-engineered heart valves. She is a past Missouri Health Journalism Fellow and a current member of the National Association of Science Writers. She holds a bachelor's degree in engineering science from Iowa State University and a master's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Minnesota.