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A New Reality for Cancer Patients

By Sophie Haugen, VI Form

A New Reality for Cancer Patients

“No radiation. No Chemo. No Cancer.” These are the words on the sign hanging from the window of the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Partway through my fifth form year in Advanced Biology, Jack Thalmann and I were fortunate enough to be selected for internship positions at a cutting-edge research lab for one month of the coming summer.

This past August, we traveled to Seattle and lived in Magnolia, an urban-residential neighborhood located a few miles north of downtown Seattle, with Max (‘72) and Marcia Witter. Each day we commuted to the Ben Towne Center and worked in the Jensen Lab, which focuses on immunotherapy as a treatment for pediatric cancer. Dr. Michael Jensen (‘82), the director of the Center, has made remarkable strides and has achieved some incredible success. Dr. Jensen and the staff at the Jensen Lab take an innovative approach to fighting cancer: they collect blood samples from pediatric cancer patients, genetically engineer the patient’s own T-cells to recognize cancer cells, and infuse the treatment back into the patient’s body.

The T-cells are engineered to produce chimeric antigen receptors, also known as CARs, which are artificially designed receptors that have a specificity for that patient’s cancer cells. This specificity is what causes the T-cells to attack only the particular tumor cells without attacking anything else. The Jensen lab is currently conducting clinical trials for this treatment in patients with refractory acute lymphoblastic leukemia. So far, they have achieved a 93% remission rate, and the children who receive this treatment experience far less harmful side effects than result from typical first-line radiation and chemotherapies. The Jensen Lab has proven that the immune system can be a powerful tool to fight back against cancer.

Each day, I primarily worked with and learned from two mentors, Ananya and Hannah, who are research scientists. My independent work consisted of creating plasmid DNA constructs to be used later in the process of developing treatments. I often cultured bacteria and performed mini and maxi preps, processes that purify and isolate DNA. I also used various enzymes to cut the plasmid DNA molecules into separate pieces, which enabled me to extract a backbone of one construct and combine it with a separate gene from another construct, for example. This process was called molecular cloning via subcloning, and I learned how to use agarose gel electrophoresis as a method for examining different pieces of DNA. I also completed a number of bacterial transformations, which consist of inserting external and foreign DNA into E. coli bacterial cells. I could confirm the efficacy and success of most of these projects by whether or not the bacteria grew. Although the projects I completed were relatively simple and are relevant for the very beginning of the process, they are necessary for the overall creation of treatments. When I left the lab each day, I knew that I had contributed to science and conducted authentic research each day, and that is something truly rewarding and fascinating. 

The Jensen Lab is definitely a leader in the field of immunotherapy. Dr. Jensen and the other scientists there have made novel advancements and saved many lives. But, as Dr. Jensen would say, they are just getting started. Next, they hope to extend this type of treatment to solid tumors — specifically, brain tumors. It is going to be a challenge, but they’ve already begun further advancement of T-cell engineering; one of their current projects and goals is enabling “on” and “off” switches on their CAR receptors. The combination of microbiology and biotechnology is amazing, and I believe that they are capable of ending childhood cancer sooner rather than later.

During our final week in Seattle, the FDA announced the first approval in the United States for an immunotherapy drug for pediatric cancer. I read the headlines for this milestone while at the lab, and felt overwhelmed by the fact that I was participating in the very same work at that very moment. This science happening right now. Cancer treatments are working right now. Soon, a one-time infusion treatment may be a reality for all pediatric cancer patients, and I can’t wait to see it happen.

In addition to being a part of Dr. Jensen’s world every day, Marcia and Max introduced Jack and me to a number of people and organizations separate from the Ben Towne Center who are also world-leaders in life science and global health. Thanks to the two of them, we attended a private event hosted by the Institute for Systems Biology and had a face to face conversation with Dr. Lee Hood, who essentially helped develop DNA sequencing among many other instruments. He was a pioneer of the human genome project and has contributed to modern biology in several significant ways. He is one example of a person we had the fortune of meeting. We also visited the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. At these places, we met leaders in science, education, and global health. All of these experiences heightened my curiosity and excitement for science, and they confirmed that I want to pursue a life in this field.

Though the Seattle Children’s Research Institute and every other organization we visited vary in their approaches and specialties, they all share one common quality. Each and every place and person that I met and saw focuses on the positives and the cure. The Gates Foundation’s overarching motivation and purpose is eradicating all disease and providing every human with a healthy life. Clearly, tackling a goal as seemingly impossible as this comes with challenges and defeat along with success. Yet, every photo at the Foundation is of the health being created; there is no portrayal of disease or struggle. The philanthropic approach and positive outlook held by every person there was immensely tangible; it did not feel like a Foundation focused on deadly diseases. Similarly, throughout my entire month at the Jensen Lab, I never consciously thought of cancer in a particularly negative way. Every Friday we attended the lab meeting, and each time, I sat in both shock and awe trying to comprehend all of the work being done by the people around me. To them, and to Dr. Jensen, cancer is real, and it is definitely a disease. But, they are not afraid of it. They are all noticeably positive and passionate people who are excited by the opportunity to beat cancer. The palpable energy in and around the lab every day unites them and proved to me that cancer actually lifts them up. It doesn’t bring them down. They’re fighting it with life and prosperity, and I am confident that they will be successful. I am grateful to have been able to play a part in this process, and I definitely left Seattle feeling inspired and excited to pursue the future.

Sophie Haugen is a VI Form day student from Southborough, MA. She runs cross country, coxes on the crew team, and loves to travel.

 


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