Expert in cancer immunotherapy joins Stanford Medicine faculty

Crystal Mackall will lead the university’s efforts to translate basic science discoveries into immune-based treatments for pediatric and adult cancers.

- By Erin Digitale

Crystal Mackall will lead Stanford's efforts to advance clinical trials of immune therapies for cancer.   
Norbert von der Groeben

Cancer immunotherapy expert Crystal Mackall, MD, joined the Stanford University School of Medicine on Jan. 1 as a professor of pediatrics and of medicine, as well as associate director of the Stanford Cancer Institute and co-medical director of the Stanford Laboratory for Cell and Gene Medicine.

As part of her role in the Department of Pediatrics, Mackall is being appointed program leader in pediatric cancer immunotherapy.

Mackall, who previously headed the Immunology Section at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, and served as chief of the Institute’s Pediatric Oncology Branch, will lead Stanford’s efforts to advance clinical trials of immune therapies for cancer, with the ultimate goal of moving them to widespread clinical use.

“We are very excited about Crystal’s arrival at Stanford,” said Hugh O’Brodovich, MD, professor and chair of pediatrics and director of the Child Health Research Institute at Stanford. “She will create an innovative cancer immunotherapy program across Stanford Medicine that will leverage and expand the academic strengths of Stanford University and translate basic science discoveries to treat cancers in children and adults using novel immunotherapy approaches.” O’Brodovich is also the Adalyn Jay Physician-in-Chief at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, a part of Stanford Children’s Health.

Translating discoveries into treatments

As associate director of the Stanford Cancer Institute, Mackall will oversee a multidisciplinary program in cancer immunotherapy. “Cancer immunotherapy is one of the most promising areas in cancer research, showing remarkable results in several previously intractable cancers,” said Beverly Mitchell, MD, director of the Stanford Cancer Institute and the George E. Becker Professor in Medicine. “Dr. Mackall is at the forefront of research in this critical area.”  

She knows how to move fundamental discoveries toward the clinic and toward novel therapies. 

“Crystal will be a key player in Stanford’s translational research program in stem cell and gene therapy,” said Maria Grazia Roncarolo, MD, professor of pediatrics and of medicine and co-director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. “Her expertise in the area of engineering T cells to fight cancer is complementary to our existing ability to engineer stem cells and T cells to cure genetic diseases. She also knows how to move fundamental discoveries toward the clinic and toward novel therapies. She’s really a fantastic addition to our team.”

Mackall is an expert in the field of T cell homeostasis — the maintenance of a healthy number and level of diversity of these immune cells. She has worked at the National Cancer Institute since 1989. After earning a medical degree from the Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy and completing a residency in pediatrics and internal medicine at Children’s Hospital Medical Center of Akron/Akron General Medical Center in Ohio, she moved to the NCI for a fellowship in pediatric hematology/oncology. She advanced through the ranks of NCI investigators, earning the title of tenured principal investigator in 2003 and becoming chief of the pediatric oncology branch in 2008.

Advancing cancer immunotherapy

In addition to her fundamental discoveries in the field of human T cell homeostasis, Mackall’s scientific achievements include conducting the first studies in humans of recombinant interleukin-7, a cytokine that can be used in cancer treatment. Her group was one of the first to demonstrate the success of a cancer therapy for pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia that works by modifying the patient’s own immune cells. The cells are removed from the patient, engineered to express cancer-specific receptors and returned to the patient, where they attack the cancer.

We have entered the golden age of immunotherapy for cancer.

Mackall also serves as co-leader of Stand Up 2 Cancer’s Pediatric Cancer Dream Team, a multi-institutional program focused on developing novel immunotherapies for childhood cancer.  She holds patents or has patents pending for nine advances in cancer immune therapy.

“We have entered the golden age of immunotherapy for cancer,” Mackall said. “I think Stanford’s depth of scientific excellence and innovation will play a fundamental role in advancing this field. I’m excited to have the chance to develop a vibrant translational research program focused on cellular therapy for cancer, building upon all of the university’s existing strengths.”

Mackall’s recruitment is in line with Stanford’s strategic decision to invest in research that aims to translate scientific discoveries into clinical treatments for several categories of previously intractable disease, including a number of genetic diseases and cancers, Roncarolo said.

Mackall joins experts in genetic diseases, tissue-specific diseases and complex diseases that could potentially be treated with stem cell, gene therapy and immunotherapy techniques. To help the team implement these novel technologies, Stanford will open the Laboratory for Cell and Gene Medicine this year, a Good Manufacturing Practice compliant facility.

“This program puts Stanford in a unique position to be a world leader in stem cell and gene therapies and regenerative medicine,” Roncarolo said.

About Stanford Medicine

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