Four years ago, I was hired for a new and terrific job: to help my colleagues at Solebury Trout and the investors we advise better understand the new field of cancer immunotherapy. The next day I attended an immunotherapy conference to learn everything I could.

One of the first people I approached was Zelig Eshhar, an Israeli immunologist who has been called the father of CAR-T cell therapy. As we talked, he exclaimed, “Oh — this is not so complicated,” then grabbed my notebook and drew a little diagram to explain this technology. With a wink he said, “You should frame this — I am famous.”

So I did, and set it on my desk at work.

One of the first scientists I brought in to talk with our team was Dr. Drew Pardoll, head of immunology at Johns Hopkins. He saw Eshhar’s cartoon on my desk and said, “Wow — that guy’s really famous.” So I asked Drew (who I think is famous) if he wanted to draw a cancer immunotherapy cartoon, and he said yes. So I framed it and put it, too, on my desk.

Eshhar and Pardoll immunotherapy cartoons
The first two cartoons in the author’s collection: “Still life: mouse with T-body” by Zelig Eshhar, Ph.D., professor of chemical and cellular immunology at Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel (left) and “Bad neighborhood” by Drew Pardoll, M.D., co-director of the cancer immunology and hematopoiesis program at Johns Hopkins University. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Over the next two years, I accumulated nearly 50 drawings — some almost professionally done, others closer to scribbles — and had to find new places to put them.

One day, as my boss looked at the collection, he suggested that the drawings would make an excellent starting point for a book about the scientists who helped bring cancer immunotherapy to life. And that’s how my book, “A Cure Within,” was born. Based entirely on interviews with immuno-oncology pioneers, it helps trace the development of the work that is transforming cancer care.

I think that the cartoons also tell the story. The first two below are by this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, Jim Allison and Tasuku Honjo. The others are a sample of the breadth of inventiveness that a simple cartoon can offer about something as complex as cancer immunotherapy.

Allison and Honjo immunotherapy cartoons
Immunotherapy cartoons by this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine: “Raising the tail” by Jim Allison (left) and “Two-phased: Anti-PD1” by Tasuku Honjo. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Elizabeth Jaffee immunotherapy cartoon
“Gentlemen, start your engines,” drawn by Tak Mak, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Ontario, Canada Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Laurence Zitvogel immunotherapy cartoon
“My first brain” by Laurence Zitvogel, M.D., research director for tumor immunology and immunotherapy at the Gustave Roussy Cancer Center in Villejuif, France Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Gerrnberg immunotherapy cartoon
“Stealie cells” by Philip Greenberg, M.D., the head of immunology at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and professor of immunology at the University of Washington, both in Seattle. Note the Grateful Dead reference. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Coffin immunotherapy cartoon
“Oncolytic T-vec” by Robert Coffin, Ph.D., cofounder and CEO of Replimune in Woburn, Mass. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Sadelain immunotherapy cartoon
“CAR-T cell in action” by Michel Sadelain, M.D., director of the Center for Cell Engineering at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Neil Canavan is the scientific adviser at Solebury Trout and author of “A Cure Within: Scientists Unleashing the Immune System to Kill Cancer” (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2017). The cartoons here are a small sample of those included in the book.

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  • Simplifies the complicated complexity of their work, too. A few classes in drawing would nearly produce illustration masterpieces.

  • Those cartoons are a wonderful and innovative tool to communicate about rather complex issues!
    Just try another time with color pens or markers…

    • “Whatever is well conceived is clearly said, And the words to say it flow with ease. ” Boileau
      It could be changed in
      “Whatever is well conceived is clearly pictured, And the drawings to say it flow with ease.”

    • Some are in color – unfortunately, reproducing color in books is kinda expensive. The one by Dr. Zitvogel is actually done in lime green, and fuchsia sharpies, on yellow legal pad

  • Fantastic! I loved this article and all the images. Thank you so much for writing/collecting this! PS. the best ideas begin on the back of a used envelope or paper napkin.

    • I think from now on I’m just going to supply investigators with napkins, envelopes, and maybe beer coasters for all future cartoons

    • You could show each & ask kids to figure them out — after a lesson or talk about what’s going on in the field.

      It really is a delightful article.

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