Dr. Chris Choi recently gave me an insider’s tour of his unique cGMP lab and production facility and
Assistant Professor of Oncology and
Director of the Therapeutic Cell Production Facility
Clinical Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP)
facility that’s part of RPCI’s Center for Immunotherapy.
he was kind enough to answer some questions about the exciting work he and his team are undertaking at Roswell Park.
Dr. Choi received his PhD from the University of Southern California from the department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology. Dr. Choi comes to RPCI from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where he served as the Human Gene Medicine Program GMP Facilities manager and led the startup and operation of a GMP-compliant laboratory for phase I/II clinical cell therapy studies. Dr. Choi has spent a decade in the development of cell and gene-based therapies to improve the medical outcome of life-threatening diseases.
Q. How long have you been living and working in Buffalo and what brought you here?
A. It’s been about a year and a half now; I moved here in the fall of 2010 to take the job with Roswell Park. It was absolutely this Institute and this opportunity that drew me away from southern California. I was really energized by my conversations with the directors of RPCI’s Center for Immunotherapy and other Roswell Park leaders, who had put so much thought and planning into how they wanted to launch their cell-production facility. The opportunity to be involved in the facility from the ground up and to be working as part of this world-class team wasn’t one I was about to pass up.
Q. The phase I clinical trial for the dendritic cell vaccine that could fight cancer (NY-ESO-1) has garnered plenty of attention recently; can you briefly explain why this is so important?
A. As you note, this is a phase 1 trial, the very first stage of any clinical study, so this is very early in the investigational process. But the announcement we made in January is significant both because our team, led by Dr. Kunle Odunsi, has developed a highly promising vaccine that may prove effective against cancers that have been extremely difficult to treat and because of what it represents for Roswell Park and this region. With this clinical study we’re launching the Therapeutic Cell Production Facility, which gives us the ability to produce not just cancer therapies but all kinds of cellular therapies, giving researchers throughout the region access to a local biotech partner who can help them to test new products and potentially get them to patients much more quickly.
Q. Other nationally recognized cancer institutes in the US are working on cancer vaccines; what sets yours apart?
A. There are three unique aspects to this clinical research study, beginning with the particular antigen we’re targeting. It’s got a long name: the DEC205mAb-NY-ESO-1 fusion protein. The second unique aspect is the equipment that we’ll use to make this vaccine onsite – it’s the Xvivo barrier isolator, custom-made for Roswell Park by a company in Oswego County, NY; it’s basically a clean room in a box. And the third aspect that sets this therapy apart from other cancer vaccines is the fact that ours will be tested in combination with a drug called rapamycin. Rapamycin has been around for years, but it was one of my colleagues, Dr. Protul Shrikant, who first realized it might help us to control tumor growth by giving immune cells memory so that they can keep killing cancer cells long-term, potentially preventing those cancers from recurring. We have a long road ahead of us in terms of investigating this approach, but there’s a lot of research behind us already.
Q. How did the concept behind the vaccine first come about?
A. Dr. Odunsi has been working in this area for a decade. He’s a gynecologic oncologist, but he happens to have a background in immunology, and that led him to explore the idea that we might be able to control tumor growth by targeting this one protein, the NY-ESO-1 antigen. He’s been developing these types of vaccines for years and investigating them as part of clinical trials since 2002. Dr. Odunsi brought together a team of Roswell Park researchers who collaborated to develop this new vaccine, including the idea to incorporate rapamycin into the therapy based on Dr. Shrikant’s findings.
Q. How can private companies engage with your lab and what types of partnerships are you currently seeking?
A. I talk with academic programs and biotech companies virtually every day. We compare notes, discuss what equipment and technologies are available to manufacture cellular therapies and talk about research projects, what it will take to get them off the ground. So I absolutely encourage researchers as well as private-sector biotech folks to get in touch with me at email@example.com.
Q. As a newcomer to our region, what do you think are Buffalo Niagara’s greatest strengths & assets as they relate to the Life Sciences industry?
A. Using Roswell Park as an example, I think the institutions here tend to be more flexible and creative in how they approach a challenge. RPCI was able to create the Cell Production Facility very cost-effectively by determining just what equipment was missing from the equation in order for us to be able to produce cell therapies on-site, and then partnering with a New York State company that could custom-make a machine that was just what we needed, without rebuilding our whole manufacturing facility from scratch. And I think there’s a great talent bank here – we have some extremely smart, accomplished people here on the Medical Campus, and I love having a chance to interact with them.
Q. What Regional organizations, clubs or events do you personally participate in, and at what level, (non-life sciences related)?
A. Currently, I’m involved with several great organizations like the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, Buffalo Niagara 360 and Leadership Buffalo, all working with the common goal of making Buffalo great. These organizations are fantastic, and I try to make myself available and volunteer however I can.
For example, at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, I’m part of a Perspectives Council, a group of young professionals around the area who act as a sounding board for various ideas that the Partnership may throw at us. We’re encouraged to give input as to how we think these ideas can be further developed.
Q. What do you most enjoy about life in Buffalo outside of work? What was your biggest surprise about Buffalo?
A. I’m very fortunate to have made a great group of friends here in Buffalo who have shown me around this great city. Outside of work, I enjoy touring around the city to admire the architecture and history, as well as visiting the many museums and trying the many culinary treats around the area. Of course, I also enjoy going to Sabres games.
I would have to say, the biggest surprise about Buffalo is how many different and great community events are held here throughout the year, like the Taste of Buffalo and Shakespeare in Delaware Park. I’m a big fan.
“My life works in Buffalo Niagara because I found my dream job here, one that allows me to do meaningful work as part of a team I’m proud to be part of, and I’ve been able to build a rich life around that, too. It’s very easy to meet people here, and I’ve found Buffalo to be a very enjoyable place to live with great people, restaurants and cultural offerings.” - Dr. Chris Choi
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