Sang Taek Kim, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine (rheumatology), first came to Yale School of Medicine (YSM) in 2009 as a rheumatology fellow. Subsequently, he earned a PhD through YSM’s Investigative Medicine Program. At the time, he was drawn to Yale’s collaborative environment and high level of basic science and translational research.
This past summer, he returned to YSM for many of the same reasons. “The Section of Rheumatology, Allergy and Immunology has a familylike atmosphere,” said Kim, who was most recently an assistant professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “I’m very happy to be back.”
A physician-scientist, Kim is interested in the autoimmune complications induced by cancer immunotherapy. In his new role, he serves as director of the Immunotherapy Adverse Events in Rheumatology Program. The focus of the program is to manage patients who have adverse events—undesirable outcomes not related to underlying disease—due to immunotherapy or who have autoimmune conditions that may cause flare-ups, or a severe onset of symptoms, when receiving immunotherapy. Immunotherapy treatments—such as immune checkpoint inhibitors, CAR T-cell therapy, and cancer vaccines—use the body’s immune system to fight cancer.
“The goal is to make sure that our patients’ immunotherapy treatment isn’t interrupted due to adverse events or autoimmune issues,” Kim said.
Approximately 20% to 25% of cancer patients will have rheumatological adverse events after receiving immunotherapy, according to Kim. Adverse events can include joint or muscle pain, joint swelling, muscle stiffness, vasculitis, dry eyes and mouth, and myositis, which can severely impact quality of life and be organ- or life-threatening, he said.
One of the important factors in the success of the clinic is treating patients in a timely manner, Kim notes. Often, patients need to start or resume immunotherapy as soon as possible to successfully treat their cancer. At the same time, adverse events need to be effectively treated to preserve the function of inflamed organs.
Another vital aspect is the collaboration with oncologists. “The medications we use to treat these adverse events may interact with or lessen the efficacy of the immunotherapy treatment, so communication with referring physicians is key,” Kim said.
As the use of immunotherapy grows to address more types of cancer—and adverse events increase accordingly—Kim hopes that the data from the program will provide insights into the underlying mechanisms of these conditions, especially given that there are no mouse models of rheumatological immunotherapy-induced adverse events. The new knowledge will lead to a deeper understanding of the predictive markers for these adverse events as well as the development of optimal treatment strategies, he said.
The Section of Rheumatology, Allergy and Immunology is dedicated to providing care for patients with rheumatic, allergic, and immunologic disorders; educating future generations of thought leaders in the field; and conducting research into fundamental questions of autoimmunity and immunology. To learn more, visit Rheumatology, Allergy & Immunology.