By Lilly Drohan, VI Form
From Classroom To Lab: My Work With T Cell Therapy
This summer, I traveled to Seattle, Washington to work in the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute. My biology teacher presented me with the opportunity, and I immediately got my hands on it. Studying cancer at the microbiological level in Advanced Biology my junior year really challenged me and stimulated my curiosity, but what I experienced during August turned my attraction into almost an obsession. Dr. Michael Jensen, the director of the lab, takes an approach to pediatric cancer therapy that not many take: using the body’s own immune system to fight off the cancer. Dr. Jensen and his team reprogram immune cells called T cells using virus technology to give the cells specific properties that help them proliferate and target specific molecules expressed on cancer cells. This form of therapy is incredibly innovative and creative, and it was so captivating to be at the forefront of the further development of the treatment for just a brief month.
I was able to meet one of the patients of Dr. Jensen’s clinical trial at the Seattle Children’s Hospital. Her name was Addie and she was ten years old. She had been fighting acute lymphoblastic leukemia for the majority of her childhood and had gone through several rounds of intense chemotherapy. I went to the hospital to observe Addie’s infusion of the therapy Dr. Jensen’s lab had carefully created for her. Two weeks later, Addie went into full remission. To see this therapy go from the lab bench to the bedside of a patient and change the life of Addie and her family was unbelievable. I had seen her infusion go from a tiny tube of DNA to a plastic bag of what Dr. Jensen calls “super T cells” that gave Addie her childhood back.
The majority of my days in the lab were spent preparing samples of DNA that were going into the T cells to give them their new properties. One day towards the end of the month, my supervisor, who is a pre-clinical molecular biologist, asked me to combine a piece of DNA from one sample with a piece of DNA from another sample to create a novel DNA sample with new properties. I spent the rest of my day carefully creating the sample and then sent the sample to another lab that would sequence the DNA. Later that week, Dr. Jensen approached me and informed me that the DNA pieces had combined successfully and that the sample was going to go into the neuroblastoma clinical trial, a trial that the lab was troubleshooting because patients were not going into full remission. Dr. Jensen hoped that this novel DNA sequence would solve the problem. After leaving the lab that day, I was so overwhelmed with the fact that something I had worked on as a high school intern was going to be put into clinical trial and help children like Addie. This experience demonstrated to me how gratifying the field of medicine can be. Having a hand in changing the lives of others has made me eager to pursue similar projects in the future.