2019 SRF Summer Scholar Profile: Emily Yang

Hi! My name is Emily Yang, and I’m a senior studying biomedical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. I’m working at the Center for Stem Cell Therapeutics and Imaging (CSTI) under Dr. Khalid Shah at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and my mentor is Dr. Jasneet Khalsa. CSTI is focused on advancing immunotherapies to treat glioblastomas, which still remain the most malignant and prevalent form of primary brain tumors. The lab has developed oncolytic viruses, tumor-targeting T cells and stem cells and, most recently, created self-targeting cancer cells using CRISPR/CAS9 technology. Prior to this internship, I have been working in a cardiovascular engineering lab under Dr. Aaron Baker, and my project involved creating an oral therapeutic for atherosclerosis using sugars derived from seaweed. This is my first experience with cancer-based research and immunology, and I’m very thankful to have been introduced to this field through such a dedicated lab group as CSTI.

Glioblastomas (GBMs) are the most lethal and common type of brain tumor in the aging population, remaining unresponsive to standard cancer treatments. The field of immunotherapy, which encompasses therapeutics that enhance the immune system’s response against tumors, has shown potential in targeting GBMs, particularly with chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy. CAR T cells are modified immune cells with increased specificity for recognizing and attacking tumor cells. They have shown success in eradicating tumors found in blood, but their efficacy in GBMs is inhibited by a hostile tumor environment that limits their growth and function. Our goal is to overcome these limitations by using an immune system protein to boost CAR T cell efficacy. We are focusing on such proteins because they have been shown to enhance T cell growth and function, and they can also recruit additional immune cells to the tumor site. To assess the effect on CAR T cells, we added different concentrations of the immune system protein to CAR T cells and compared tumor cell death and T cell function to CAR T cells without the protein. Based on our results, we hope to create a novel and effective therapeutic against a cancer that has remained evasive to current treatments, while also expanding upon the use of supplementary molecules to enhance CAR T cell therapy in solid tumors.

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