PacSci Perspectives


Engineering T Cells To Kill Cancer

by | Apr 27, 2017

“I’m so, so sorry. The results are back, and we’re going to need you to come in so we can discuss your options,” the woman on the phone said to me.

Everything became fuzzy. My eyes filled with tears. My knees gave out. I felt like my world had collapsed. Three days after my 28th birthday I had been diagnosed with breast cancer; aggressive, difficult-to-treat, breast cancer.

Over the next year, I underwent 14 rounds of chemotherapy and 3 surgeries, all while attempting to complete my PhD studies. As soon as treatments ended, I knew what I needed to do with my skills and training: apply it to cancer research. Research saved my life; I wanted to pay it forward.

Kristin Anderson, PhD

Kristin Anderson, PhD

Here I am today studying immunotherapy. I study how to use the immune system to eliminate cancer. Something that is important to keep in mind, cancer is not one disease; it’s over 300 different diseases that all result from a related problem. Cancer is caused by DNA mutations that cause cells to grow when they shouldn’t. The vast majority of the time, our bodies can fix these mistakes, recognize cancer cells and destroy them before they become a problem, but sometimes they don’t. That’s where my research comes in.

The immune system consists of many different types of cells that protect us from foreign invaders, like viruses, bacteria and parasites, and some of these cells are able to recognize and eliminate cancer cells. Some cancer cells, however, develop ways to hide from the immune system. My research is focused on engineering these cancer-killing cells, called T cells, to more effectively recognize and kill cancer cells, even when the cancer cells are trying to “hide”.

At Pacific Science Center, you can come and learn about T cell engineering at Meet a Scientist. At “T Cell Boot Camp” we discuss how T cells recognize and destroy cancer cells, and what researchers are doing to engineer T cells to be even better cancer killers.

What is the most exciting part of this research? It works! Immunotherapy is already saving lives. We have had great success treating some blood cancers, such as leukemia. Because of the proven success, many researchers are now focusing on solid tumors as well. The more we learn about how cancers hide from the immune system, the more creative our treatment approaches and engineering become. We are making progress all the time. Come and learn about the most recent advances at Meet a Scientist.