2018 Innovation Award Recipient:        Challice L. Bonifant, MD, PhD

Dr. Challice Bonifant is working to revolutionize cancer treatments for children by engineering cells from the patient’s own immune system so they can recognize and kill the cancer. Her research focuses on acute myeloid leukemia (AML), which is the disease that took Jake’s life and is a devastating form of cancer with high levels of treatment-related toxicity and low survival rates.

While immunotherapy treatments have been successful with other types of leukemia, such as Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), AML is more difficult to attack because the target proteins found on malignant cells are also found on normal cells. Targeting these would therefore cause toxicity to the normal cells - an unacceptable side effect. Dr. Bonifant has taken the innovative approach of designing T immune cells that can target two proteins at the same time. This dual expression is common for disease cells but rare in healthy ones, enabling the treatment to more precisely kill the cancer cells. Tests in animal models have shown promise and Dr. Bonifant has filed for a provisional patent, with the intent that her work lead to the development of a clinical therapy for pediatric AML.

Both a researcher and a pediatrician, Dr. Bonifant is driven by a powerful desire to see breakthroughs from her lab impact patient lives. This passion for translating discoveries into treatments started when she was an undergraduate researcher at Wake Forest University, working on the biochemical mechanism of hydroxyurea metabolism, for treating sickle cell disease. At the time, she was also volunteering in the local children’s hospital and happened to serve dinner to a teenage girl with sickle cell disease. The girl was excited to have begun taking a new medication with much promise for turning her disease around. The medicine was hydroxyurea. For Dr. Bonifant, the connection between laboratory investigation and the relief of human suffering was made.

In January, 2019, Dr. Bonifant will be moving from her current position at the University of Michigan to the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Johns Hopkins. The institute was established as a part of the Cancer Moonshot initiative, with the express purpose of accelerating the movement of discoveries from the lab to patients in need. 

In Dr. Bonifant’s words, “Working with pediatric patients and in particular pediatric patients who are suffering either from their cancer or from the toxicity of their cancer treatment is what motivates me every day in the lab to try to do better, to work harder, and to find a solution.”