2023 O’Donnell Award in Medicine: Jennifer Wargo, M.D.
World-renowned physician scientist Jennifer Wargo, M.D., professor of Surgical Oncology and Genomic Medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, is the recipient of the 2023 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Medicine from TAMEST. She was chosen for her seminal contributions to the understanding of how the microbiome influences responses to immunotherapy and other forms of cancer treatment.
Throughout her career, Dr. Wargo has advanced important research that contributed to the understanding of how best to combine targeted therapy with immunotherapy for cancer, which paved the way for several novel combination treatment approaches. In her research to better understand why all patients don’t respond equally well to immunotherapy, she discovered the important connection between treatment outcomes and a patient’s gut microbiome.
Dr. Wargo’s lab studied patients with melanoma who were treated with immunotherapy, and found the patients who responded best to immunotherapy treatments had a greater diversity of microbes within their gut, which is generally associated with overall gut health. In addition to this, they found that patients who responded best to immunotherapy had different microbes within their gut. They translated these findings with others, demonstrating that modulation of gut microbes (via fecal microbiota transplant) could promote response in patients who are otherwise resistant to immunotherapy. These findings were published in Science in 2018 and 2021.
This discovery created the path forward to see how changes to the microbiome can positively impact immunity and immunotherapy response during cancer treatments. In a follow-up study also published in Science, Dr. Wargo and colleagues demonstrated that sufficient dietary fiber intake (of at least 20 grams per day), which can support a healthy gut microbiome, was associated with improved immunotherapy responses in patients with melanoma. These findings inspired ongoing trials to prospectively evaluate the impact of high-fiber diet on microbiome content and immunotherapy responses in patients with melanoma and other cancers.
“From the clinic to the lab, Dr. Wargo has dedicated her life to cancer patients and to figuring out how treatment with immunotherapy and other forms of cancer therapy can improve outcomes,” said Nominator and Nobel Laureate James P. Allison, Ph.D. (NAM, NAS), Regental Professor and Chair of Immunology, and Director of the James P. Allison Institute at MD Anderson Cancer Center. “She’s developed her own insightful research program and has led groundbreaking work to give us new insights into the importance of gut and other microbes in modulating immunity and immunotherapy response. The therapeutic implications Dr. Wargo’s research has for the future of cancer treatments is incredibly promising, with applications for a wide range of cancers.”
Dr. Wargo is one of five Texas-based researchers receiving the TAMEST 2023 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards. Each are chosen for their individual contributions addressing the essential role that science and technology play in society, and whose work meets the highest standards of exemplary professional performance, creativity and resourcefulness.
Dr. Wargo will be recognized at the 2023 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards Ceremony on Wednesday, May 24, 2023, and will give a presentation on her research preceding the award ceremony at the TAMEST 2023 Annual Conference: Forward Texas – Accelerating Change in Houston, Texas, at the The InterContinental Houston – Medical Center.
All are encouraged to attend the ceremony and the TAMEST Conference.
The Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards annually recognize rising star Texas researchers who are addressing the essential role that science and technology play in society, and whose work meets the highest standards of exemplary professional performance, creativity and resourcefulness.
Thanks to a $1.15 million gift from the O’Donnell Foundation in 2022, the O’Donnell Awards have expanded to include an additional science award. The awards now recognize recipients in the categories of Medicine, Engineering, Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences and Technology Innovation. (Previously, the TAMEST O’Donnell Awards rotated its science award between physical and biological sciences every year.)
The Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards are made possible by the O’Donnell Awards Endowment Fund, established in 2005 through the generous support of several individuals and organizations. View a full list of supporters here.
TAMEST was co-founded in 2004 by the Honorable Kay Bailey Hutchison and Nobel Laureates Michael S. Brown, M.D., and Richard E. Smalley, Ph.D. With more than 330 members and 18 member institutions, TAMEST is composed of the Texas-based members of the three National Academies (National Academy of Medicine, National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences), the Royal Society and the state’s 9 Nobel Laureates. We bring together the state’s brightest minds in medicine, engineering, science and technology to foster collaboration, and to advance research, innovation and business in Texas.
TAMEST’s unique interdisciplinary model has become an effective recruitment tool for top research and development centers across Texas. Since our founding, more than 275 TAMEST members have been inducted into the National Academies or relocated to Texas.