By Grant Gattuso and Frank Hua, VI Form
CAR T Cell–Giving Cancer Patients New Hope
This past summer we had the opportunity to work in a cancer research lab in Seattle for four weeks— a very unique experience, especially for high schoolers. We worked in Dr. Michael Jensen’s ‘82 lab in the Ben Towne Center For Childhood Cancer Research, which is affiliated with Seattle Children’s Hospital. The lab focuses on CAR T Cell, a immunotherapy that gives cancer patients a new hope.
CAR T stands for Chimeric Antigen Receptors. After a patient’s T-cells are taken, scientists use lentivirus (usually disarmed HIV because they have the glycoproteins that can bind to specific receptors on T-cells such as CD4) to insert segments of DNA into the T-cells so that they can express certain receptors on them that recognize and target cancerous cells. Normally, T-cells can recognize “sick” cells or invaders such as bacteria and eliminate them through induced apoptosis. However, cancer cells evade that process because they cannot be recognized by T-cells as malignant cells, and they also escape the cell death pathways that normal cells undergo. Thus, the T-cells of a cancer patient need to be modified to be able to recognize and kill the cancer cells. Much of the focus in recent research is to identify the markers on the cancerous cells that are not on other cells. Because if the same markers were on other cells, then the CAR T cells would kill those healthy cells along with cancer cells, and the consequence might be detrimental. In conversation with Dr. Jensen, he made a point of mentioning how immunotherapy is the future breakthrough on cancer treatment because it does not harm the rest of the body like other treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Throughout our time in the lab, we were led by three researchers, Ryan Koning, Aquene Reid, and Dr. Karen Spratt. Our Advanced Biology class gave us a great base about immunology but they taught us much more detailed information about the immune system and molecular interactions of the experiments we were conducting. We learned the essentials of bench work and practiced quite a few procedures in the molecular workflow. We mastered extracting cell DNA through two process called maxipreps and minipreps yielding impressive results in our first two attempts. After the first week, we became independent in preparing the extracted DNA for sequencing. This included picking out which primers to use and understanding what to look for when picking these primers. We ultimately ended up completing everything in this molecular workflow at least once throughout our four weeks. What meant the most to us was the fact that our work and time in the lab actually contributed to the progress toward a cure for many different cancers. We learned not only the science, but also the dedication and patience it takes to be a researcher.
One of our favorite parts of the lab experience was the lab meetings that took place on Friday mornings. During them, the whole lab observed two PhD students present on what they had been working on. Though we felt like we were in a class where everyone speaks a different language, it was clear that the research they were completing was unique and groundbreaking. It was really inspiring to see the discussions that went on during them between a room full of experts working to ultimately cure cancer. The teamwork, collaboration, and excitement were incredible to see.
Behind all of the breakthroughs and progress, it is Dr. Jensen who brought everyone together to focus on what he believed would be the cure for cancers. It was clear that Dr. Jensen is a determined scientist who is on the frontier of the evolution cancer therapies. We would not have had this unforgettable experience if it was not for him.
While completing our internship in the lab, we also had another amazing experience with our incredible hosts, Marcia Johnson-Witter and Max Witter ‘71. They showed us Seattle better than anyone else could have in a month! We explored all the different neighborhoods and got to know the city as well as Boston.
Our experience with them extended into science as well. Through the Witters’ connections, we got to visit the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB), the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center, and Eric Chudler at the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering. ISB is a research institute that focuses on bringing all of the different disciplines in science together to solve complex problems. We got the chance to tour ISB’s facilities while learning more about the work they do and making connections with some of their top scientists. It was inspiring to see how they bring science, as a whole, together. Just a few days after our tour of ISB, Marcia brought us to an ISB event in which we had meaningful
conversations with Dr. Leroy Hood who is the founder of ISB and inventor of the DNA sequencer (something we used almost daily in our lab experience), and Dr. James R. Heath, Nobel Prize winner and newly made president of ISB. It was a unique experience to be surrounded with scientists who are at the frontier of biological researches.
At Fred Hutch, we got to explore another cancer research center. The Hutch is and always has been a pioneer in cancer research, so we got to learn about the history of where our work in the lab was coming from. We also learned about some of the amazing outreach programs of the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center that are aimed to educate the surrounding Seattle area to help breed new scientists for the future!
Our time with Dr. Chulder at the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering gave us a look into neurology. We learned about some of the books that Dr. Chulder wrote and is writing and some of the projects that he and his team are working on. He, just like everyone else we spoke with, was so excited about his work and the science field. It’s motivating to see such excitement.
A special thanks to John Camp, Max Witter ‘71, Marcia Johnson-Witter, Dr. Michael Jensen ‘82, and Diane Kurzontkowski ‘83 for making this experience possible.