Ed Fritsch: Fast-Tracking Cancer Immunotherapy Research

In describing himself, Ed Fritsch, the founder of the Fritsch Foundation, says, “I’m not, what do they say, the sharpest stone on the block or something.”

Yet, he is one of the minds that cloned the first human beta-globin gene and later co-wrote what is widely considered the “bible” on genetic cloning. He went on to work at the Genetics Institute and later became the CSO of Phylos Inc. Due, in part, to personal tragedy, his focus switched to the field of cancer immunotherapy and, as a founder of Neon Therapeutics, is helping to bring personalized cancer vaccines to patients. His current passion is building the “go-to” database for cancer immunotherapy research for scientists and lay-people alike, and, like many brilliant people, he credits his success on hard work, focus, and luck.

“I’m also pretty stubborn which helps in terms of not wanting to give up on things.”

Humble would be another word.

From humble beginnings

Fritsch grew up in what he describes as a household where money was scarce, with a saintly mother and a heavy-drinking father. “He wasn’t an alcoholic, but he liked to drink, and the things I heard as a kid would probably make a sailor blush.” His mother was resourceful and found ways for their family to get by. He attended a small catholic school and describes the science program as limited. “The kinds of things they’d talk about in science were like, ‘they wear white because it keeps you cooler in the summer,’ or ‘you can tell a train is coming if you put your ear on the tracks.’”

His plan was to go to aeronautics school to become an airplane mechanic. Receiving a catalog for MIT is what he considers his first and biggest piece of luck. “Going to a good school wasn’t even on my radar.”

When he arrived at MIT, he found himself struggling and trailing behind his peers. “I eventually caught up because I worked harder than other people and they thought they were so smart they didn’t have to.” Nevertheless, two years later, he became a college drop-out, working as a day laborer and trying to figure out where his academic interests should be. “I was paying for school all by myself. My parents couldn’t afford anything, but I couldn’t quite decide what I wanted to do.”

After much thought, he decided on biology.

He pursued his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in the lab of the soon-to-be Nobel Laureate, Howard Temin. “I almost left the lab because I didn’t think it was relevant enough. I was more interested in applied work.” But after seeing the stack of applications of candidates eager to replace him, he reconsidered.

Upon completing his doctorate, he and his wife, Jan, who was now pregnant, headed for Los Angeles for his postdoctoral work. He ended up as a research fellow in Tom Maniatis’ lab at Cal Tech.

“I think it’s probably the most important technical decision of my career, in terms of going in that direction, because it moved me into recombinant DNA technology, which was the emerging technology going on.”

Four weeks after starting at the lab, they built the first library of the human genome. “Other people in the lab had been struggling with it prior to that but, somehow, I had the right hands for this kind of work and I just managed to put all the steps together and do it carefully and get it done.”

A couple of weeks later, they cloned the first human beta-globin gene. At the same time, his wife gave birth to his first daughter. “I walked into the lab one evening and there was a sign with my daughter’s name on it. It said Lisa Beta Marie. Beta for beta-globin. It was an amazing two years.”

From there, he went on to teach the Cold Spring Harbor Course in molecular cloning with Maniatis and, from that material, they wrote Molecular Cloning: The Laboratory Manual. “It turned out to be a huge success.” Often referred to as the bible of cloning, the book is used around the world.

“We thought it would be a really great service,” says Fritsch, “to provide people with the knowledge that we had.”

Life’s curveball

“My wife and I got married in 1971. I was 21 and she was 19. She was the only person I dated. I had known her since she was 15.”

In 2005, his wife, Jan, developed breast cancer, and, after numerous treatments, her prognosis looked promising. “She was just about to reach the magical five-year point where people think it’s probably not going to come back.”

Fritsch was looking forward to retiring and traveling around the country with his wife when the cancer returned. In 2011, she passed away.

Pictured: Ute Burkhardt (left) and Ed Fritsch (right) with Jim Allison (center), co-founder of Neon Therapeutics and winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology.

Pictured: Ute Burkhardt (left) and Ed Fritsch (right) with Jim Allison (center), co-founder of Neon Therapeutics and winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology.

Fritsch started digging into cancer literature every day. “It was during this time that I came across immunotherapy.” That’s when another moment of luck occurred.

He went to Glenn Dranoff, who could be considered the guru of immunotherapy at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and who had been advising on a new technology identified by Nir Hacohen at the Broad Institute and Catherine J. Wu at Dana-Farber. Coincidentally, they had just had a meeting about needing someone to help them develop their proof of concept. Enter Ed Fritsch.

A year and a half later, based on Fritsch’s work, they filed the IND that was approved by the FDA. “I wrote pretty much the whole IND myself. I was a one-man virtual company that contracted other people to help.” In 2015, the company Neon Therapeutics was formed. Two years later, they were published in Nature (with a follow-up in 2019.) In 2018, the MIT Technology Review recognized the work they were doing as one of the most promising advances in cancer research. Bill Gates also recently declared that the personal cancer vaccine will be one of the top 10 breakthrough technologies in the world.

Doing something a little different

Four months after his wife passed away, Fritsch and his daughter Katie were visiting his son, Matt, in California, and discovered a frightening-looking mole on his back. It turned out to be a melanoma. He passed away in 2015, “less than four years after my wife passed away.”

Pictured: Matt Fritsch (center) with his Mom, Jan (right) and Dad, Ed (left) at his graduation from Cornell.

Pictured: Matt Fritsch (center) with his Mom, Jan (right) and Dad, Ed (left) at his graduation from Cornell.

Fritsch’s son was a successful engineer at Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, and since he had no wife or children, he wanted his SpaceX stock donated to cancer research.

“I thought that was a great idea,” said Fritsch. “The question was what to do. I mean, I could have donated it to somebody, but I wanted to do something a little different.”

And so, ACIR was born in 2015.

Ed Fritsch founded ACIR (Accelerating Cancer Immunotherapy Research) with the desire for it to be the main source for finding cancer immunotherapy research. Just as the cloning bible helped expand the field by giving scientists information to support their work, Fritsch is driven by a similar goal.

“Going through literature is a super time-consuming task,” says Fritsch, “especially to do it well.” So, one day, while in the shower, Fritsch came up with the idea of providing a service that would do it for free. “That was our goal. To amplify the impact of what a small number of people could do by sharing it with thousands.” He mentioned the idea to Ute Burkhardt, who had worked in Wu’s lab at Dana-Farber and is now the co-founder and Chief Medical Scientist at ACIR.

“We spent about a year and a half developing the idea,” says Burkhardt. “We were trying to understand what was needed to boost creative and innovative research ideas and how much time researchers can and want to spend weekly to keep up with the literature.”

They wanted to be a resource that would make keeping up with the literature easier and defined a writing style that was neutral and accurate, and where complex ideas could be easily followed. Each of their features is accompanied by a whiteboard image (as below) to aid in understanding.

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They provide a weekly newsletter which has nearly 2000 subscribers and is growing. “Scientists really value this service and are surprised that we provide it for free,” says Burkhardt. The number of ACIR unique users is growing weekly, as well. “We are very excited to be part of this very active cancer immunotherapy research community.”

Their next launch will be a service dedicated to patients and caregivers to help them better understand the science behind the therapies that are being utilized, while another component is attending conferences where immunotherapy is covered and making available reports on a number of the talks that would be interesting to their readership.

“Immunotherapy has become the fourth pillar of treating cancer,” says Fritsch. “It used to be we were on this three-legged stool of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, and now, immunotherapy is added, so basically we have a firmer four-legged stool from which to fight disease.”

What leaders can do to help

“There are two parts to it,” says Fritsch. “One is to spread the word and encourage people in their organizations to use the service, and the other part is to support our work philanthropically.”

Fritsch and Burkhardt’s goal is to be the place for immunotherapy researchers everywhere “I'd like it to be the one-stop shopping place where eventually anything you want to know about cancer immunotherapy, you can come to our site and find it.”

Their goal is to raise $450,000, which Fritsch describes as a one-year “runway.”

Burkhardt adds, “New knowledge can only be helpful if you share it, and new information should be available to everyone because then, everyone can help to advance progress in this field by sharing the knowledge.”

“It’s a living legacy to my son,” says Fritsch, “and to help everybody else stop the pain and suffering so we can take care of this disease.” To find out more about ACIR and sign up for their newsletter, go to www.acir.org. To donate, click here. Follow them on Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin.

Pioneering Collective is a membership-based executive communications organization. We invite leaders to engage broadly, tell their authentic stories, and stretch beyond the status quo to connect and drive impact.

Tina Chang