January 11, 2024

Dr. Ernest Borden pioneered immunology and immunotherapy research at UW

Ernest Borden working at a lab bench
Dr. Ernest Borden

Dr. Ernest Borden arrived at the University of Wisconsin as a young researcher at a transformational time in cancer.

In 1973, UW was among the first institutions to be named a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute, part of a significant federal investment to improve research, clinical care and survivorship of cancer.

This vast injection of resources came at a time cancer was the second leading cause of death in the U.S., and its causes and complexity were still being unraveled. For Borden, who specialized in immunology and immunotherapy, it was a “challenging and exciting” time to be part of the frontline research of the modern-day UW Carbone Cancer Center.

“Although when you are in the trenches, you are focused on the day-to-day efforts,” he said. “But being involved from an early point opened doors.”

Borden’s research impact is still being felt today, as he and his wife Louise fund a pilot grant program that specifically benefits UW immunology/immunotherapy researchers and emphasizes multidisciplinary collaboration. This grant provides initial findings that help secure much larger federal grants.

“It is an outstanding example of ‘paying it forward,’” said Dr. Paul Sondel, the Reed and Carolee Walker Professor of Pediatric Oncology at UW as well as a longtime friend and colleague of Borden.

Pioneering work

Borden was among the early investigators of how interferon, a signaling protein that alerts the body’s immune system to infection, could be harnessed to create a more effective cancer treatment, or possibly help prevent cancer development. This protein had been discovered by scientists in the late 1950s, and its therapeutic potential sparked excitement across the medical field.

In the early 1980s, Borden was among the first U.S. researchers to lead clinical trials of interferon treatment. Trials were limited because interferon was hard to obtain in large quantities, and as a result it was very expensive.

“My interests have always been in the blending of basic science and clinical applications and immunology/immunotherapy offered the opportunity to combine these,” said Borden. “It was most fulfilling to see developments in the lab move into clinical trials.”

Several prominent media outlets, including a 1980 Time Magazine cover story, touted interferon as a possible cure-all for cancer, but Borden always tempered that expectation during interviews. He and fellow scientists knew cancer was more complex than one miracle treatment. Still, Borden’s work advanced the therapeutic applications of interferon. He also helped found the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer (formerly International Society for Biological Therapy of Cancer), a leading international network of professionals in the immunotherapy field, where Borden then served as president from 1986 to1988.

Borden left UW in 1990 and held several prominent oncology roles at universities and research institutions around the U.S. When he and his wife returned to Madison in 2014, he rejoined the UW research community as a professor emeritus. Soon after, he launched the new annual grant, the Ernest and Louise Borden Immunology/Immunotherapy Pilot Grant Program, to help support the next generation of cancer researchers.

Dr. Ernest Borden

“My wife and I are privileged to be able to fund young researchers in thanks to the early opportunities given to me at UW to pursue good basic science, including in collaboration with McArdle Laboratories,” Borden said. “I found great satisfaction in the bench-to-bedside work and have always wanted to help young investigators who emphasize how basic science influences clinical outcomes.”

A mentor and friend

Sondel fondly recalls Borden’s influence as a young researcher at UW—his first lab was located next door to Borden’s, and the two met frequently to talk about their work and share ideas.

“For me, and so many other mentees and researchers, Ernie’s vision, drive, example, and genuine personal interest in our science, our research, our careers, and our lives outside of work helped us to see the path he had blazed for his own research and career, and he encouraged us to follow, each in our own way,” Sondel said.

Debbie Groveman had just obtained her bachelor’s degree in microbiology when she started working in Borden’s lab in 1979. His long hours and passion for patient impact inspired her work ethic, and he also provided a friendly, supportive environment to learn.

“The atmosphere in the Borden lab in the 1980s was one of collaboration, collegiality and dedication,” Groveman said. “We had a small army of people: technicians, post-docs, clinical fellows and visiting scientists, all working as a team guided by Ernie Borden. We were the Borden family. Weekly lab meetings guaranteed we were up on each other’s progress and questions.”

She also met her husband, Jack McBain, in Borden’s lab. McBain came to UW in 1976 to do basic interferon research, which eventually supported UW’s clinical trials.

“When lab members presented their work, Ernie would typically challenge them to speculate on the mechanisms responsible for the results.” McBain said.

In addition to patient impact, Borden also prioritized making connections with researchers in other specialty areas to see where they could collaborate on new ideas. That’s why, when he launched the pilot grant program in 2017, a core requirement was, and continues to be, for research proposals to include two principal investigators from different clinical or scientific specialties, to create new ideas that could grow.

Borden is amazed at the fantastic progress made in cancer from when he began his career, and he is happy to support continued innovation.

“It was impossible to imagine 50 years ago where we would be today,” he said.