IFP Offers a ‘Common Benefit for Patients’

An interview with Jia Wei, MD, PhD

Medicine is a family affair for Dr. Jia Wei. Along with being the daughter of two physicians, her husband, Shi Dongquan, is an orthopedist and doctoral supervisor at Nanjing University’s medical school.

Dr. Wei made the decision to make oncology her specialty while studying at Nanjing University. She had been admitted there at the age of 16 and earned her doctorate at 25.

Today she is a doctoral supervisor at the university’s medical school. She also is chief physician and associate professor at Nanjing University School of Medicine’s teaching hospital, Drum Tower Hospital, and serves as deputy director of Nanjing University’s Clinical Oncology Institute. Along with the IFP fellowship, Dr. Wei continues to garner awards, including a China Youth May Fourth Medal (China’s top award for young people) and the Chinese Young Scientist of Oncology award.

In her oncology practice, Dr. Wei sees more than 8,000 patients each year. She focuses on finding new treatment methods. A team led by Dr. Wei created a personalized drug selection model that has increased the effectiveness of advanced gastric cancer treatment by 14%. Additionally, she finds time to serve as an associate Editor-in-Chief of Translational Cancer Research and Frontiers in Oncology as well as on the editorial board of BMC Cancer. She has authored or co-authored 73 scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals, as well as several book chapters and presentations.

We recently interviewed Dr. Wei (via email) on her experience as an IFP Fellow.

“This trip also initiated my thinking of the difference between the clinical and academic disciplines of oncology in China and the U.S.”

Where are you today and what does your “typical” workday involve?

I spent today in the Oncology Department of Nanjing Drum Tower Hospital where I work as a medical oncologist. My daily routine includes outpatient and clinical service in the wards. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I also provide gratuitous treatment online for civilians.

As the vice director of the Medical Center of Oncology, I engage in department management and administration business. Meanwhile, being a professor in the Medical College of Nanjing University, I do research work and tutor five PhD and nine postgraduate students.

What was your most memorable experience as an IFP Fellow?

The IFP Fellowship provides extremely intensive training on clinical trials. In 2017, I had the opportunity to attend the training programs organized by Partners CancerCare, which was founded by Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center and Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. I also participated in clinical work, multidisciplinary team (MDT) meetings and seminars, and I visited patients.

What impressed me most were the MDT meetings in the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, where residents and senior staff sat together to share cases and carry out (sometimes heated) discussions. Some cases later published in The New England Journal of Medicine exerted worldwide impact. I also got the chance to receive training at Harvard Medical School.

These fellowship opportunities gave me first-hand experiences in clinical practice and research work in the United States.

What was your main takeaway from this fellowship, and what impact has it had on your career?

The fellowship extended my insight into new drugs, technologies and clinical trials in the U.S. I got in touch and had in-depth communication with famous experts and researchers, which helped lay a solid foundation for international collaborations after I returned to China.

This trip also initiated my thinking of the difference between the clinical and academic disciplines of oncology in China and the U.S.

What differences did you note, and how does this affect your work today?

First, patient management is more complex in China than in the U.S., because Chinese cancer patients largely outnumber those in the U.S. [see sidebar]. Secondly, the morbidity of some cancer types was different between the two countries. For example, in China, hepatocellular carcinoma, gastric cancer and esophageal cancer have higher incidence rates and lead to greater research interests.

Additionally, new drug development was more concentrated in the U.S. Boston, one of the most prosperous centers, initiated plenty of early-stage clinical trials and boosted the translation of preclinical drugs.

“translational research can bridge the gap between preclinical studies and clinical obstacles. I decided to devote more to moving the field of oncology forward from bench to bedside.”

In daily work, the clinical professionals and scientists had very close collaborations. Preclinical experts often attended clinical seminars at the Dana-Farber Cancer Center, facilitating the birth of many meaningful subjects and giving me impressive memories.

These observations inspired me a lot. I deepened my understanding that translational research can bridge the gap between preclinical studies and clinical obstacles. I decided to devote more to moving the field of oncology forward from bench to bedside.

What do you know now that you wish you knew five years ago?

New drugs and technologies for anti-tumor treatment have grown exponentially these years. The advancements in biology and computer sciences have accelerated the progress in cancer treatment. Multiple new topics prosper, such as immunotherapy, gene editing, microbiota and artificial intelligence. I wish I could get to know more about the development directions and make more bold attempts in clinical trial designations and research.

What can you tell us about your latest research?

My latest research has been focused on cancer immunotherapy for advanced solid tumors, including neoantigen-based therapeutics, T cell modification technologies and drug-loaded nanomotors.

We have advanced neoantigen-based cancer immunotherapies with several key therapeutics, including adoptive neoantigen-specific T cell treatment and neoantigen vaccines. Regarding the long periods and high cost for neoantigen identification, we constructed the gastric cancer neoantigen peptide library for prevalent HLA subtypes in Chinese populations, which provides a more efficient platform for neoantigen screening and therefore, more chances for cancer patients.

We have launched clinical trials investigating personalized neoantigen nanovaccines in patients with gastric cancer, showing a 10-time amplification of tumor-specific T cell proportions. These representative results have been reported in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

We also have created several original technologies with high translational values to solve the limitations we encounter with solid tumors. To improve the poor infiltration of immune cells into the tumor microenvironment, we modified T cells with a tumor-penetrating peptide, iRGD, which promotes transendothelial lymphocyte migration through opening the endothelial wall. We further upgraded the modification unit into an iRGD-anti-CD3 bifunctional agent to enhance T cell activation, killing two birds with one stone.

On the other hand, to promote tissue permeability of drugs, we have designed nanomotors with high tumor permeability for multidrug delivery, with self-driven motion ability or near infrared (NIR)-driven ability.

Through these studies, we contribute to surmounting the barriers against solid tumor infiltration. Corresponding results have been published in high-impact journals such as Nature Communications, Advanced Science, Journal of the American Chemical Society and so on. Some have been applied in clinical trials to treat gastric cancer patients with peritoneal metastases.

“…such fellowships can build bridges to facilitate the promotion and innovation of technology for achieving mutual complementarity in the interest of common benefit for patients.” 

Of the projects you’re focused on today, is there one that you are particularly interested in? If so, why?

I am particularly interested in immunotherapy based on neoantigens, including adoptive cell therapy and vaccines. Neoantigen-based therapies are designed to trigger T cell responses highly specific to tumors of individual patients, and as such are highly valuable in translational settings.

What is your next professional goal?

My future research will focus on new technology development and related mechanism investigations that promote the therapeutic efficacies of cancer treatment. I will carry out translational projects and valuable clinical trials to benefit more cancer populations in China.

How important do you think that international experiences and exchanges of talent and ideas, such as what the IFP Fellowship offers, are to medical professionals and research — and ultimately to patients?

I think these experiences are very important for medical professionals. The IFP Fellowship enables doctors and scientists from different countries to get to know each other and it promotes international communication. Researchers can also have the opportunity for international collaboration. In short, such fellowships can build bridges to facilitate the promotion and innovation of technology for achieving mutual complementarity in the interest of common benefit for patients.