Mikayla is a rising senior working towards her bachelor’s degree in molecular biology at Harvey Mudd College. She previously worked as an intern for two summers in the Blish Lab at the Stanford University School of Medicine, where she researched NK cell recognition of influenza surface proteins and conducted an HIV cloning project. As part of the SRF Summer Scholars Program, she worked at the SRF Research Center under the guidance of Dr. Amit Sharma. Dr. Sharma is focused on studying how aging and cellular senescence affects the immune system, specifically methods to strengthen and focus the immune response to better target senescent cells.
Cellular senescence occurs when cells are exposed to a form of genetic damage, causing them to enter a state of permanent proliferation arrest. Senescent cells are known to accumulate with age and have been found to be linked with many age-related diseases, including osteoarthritis, atherosclerosis, and cancer. Stopping this accumulation of senescent cells is currently being investigated as a potential therapy for preventing the development of age-related diseases. In particular, Dr. Sharma’s team focuses on enhancing natural killer (NK) cell targeting of senescent cells. NK cells are a type of lymphocyte in the immune system that play a critical role in killing infected and diseased cells. Mikayla’s project involved investigating the effect of specific soluble serum factors produced by senescent cells that are known to reduce NK functionality. She tried to determine whether blocking or removing these factors would increase NK-mediated killing of senescent cells. To test this, she co-cultured NK cells with senescent human fibroblast cells in media with specific soluble factors that have either been removed or blocked with a drug. Then, she measured the amount of killing that occurs using a number of cytotoxicity assays.
Everyone on the planet experiences the process of aging and countless individuals have faced the negative effects of the age-related diseases that have been linked so closely with senescence. Investigating senescent cell accumulation will expand current knowledge on age-related diseases and has the potential to offer new insights into future therapies that prevent and treat such conditions.