Immune to Cancer: The CRI Blog




Young Researchers Finding Answers to Cancer and COVID-19

UPDATED: December 16, 2020

Science, ultimately, will provide the answers in the novel coronavirus pandemic, and CRI scientists, who work at the intersection of immunology and cancer biology, are well-equipped to contribute their expertise and experience in search of cures to both cancer and COVID-19.

Even researchers at the beginning of their careers can make a significant impact in the current crisis. Many CRI Irvington Postdoctoral Fellows pivoted their work, offered their skills, volunteered their time, and made outstanding contributions in pursuit of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. 

CRI-Mark Foundation Fellow Josephine Giles, PhD, at the University of Pennsylvania has co-authored an analysis of 125 COVID-19 patients that identified three “immunotypes” associated with poor clinical trajectories versus improving health. These immunotypes may be able to guide clinical decision-making with respect to applying different treatments for patients with different immunotypes, and could have implications for the design of therapeutics and vaccines for COVID-19. She shared this immune analysis in a webinar with LabRoots (below). She is also co-author of an upcoming analysis of Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C).

CRI Fellow Ido Yofe, PhD, of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, normally uses genomics technology to profile tumor cells individually. Today, he is part of a team working to establish a new method of gene sequencing for testing mass volumes of people for COVID-19.

Early in the pandemic, CRI Fellow Katie Campbell, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) applied her data analysis skills to the pandemic response. She led the creation of a publicly accessible database of potential markers to target the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus for future treatments and vaccines. We spoke with Dr. Campbell about how she adapted approaches in cancer immunotherapy to this new disease in May. This work is currently in preprint with Nature Reviews Immunology and Dr. Campbell presented the AACR Virtual Meeting: COVID-19 and Cancer this July.

We also spoke with CRI Fellow Jack Hsu, PhD, at Yale University in May about his work on the anti-viral protein viperin. While his focus is on its molecular mechanisms with the ultimate goal of applying this knowledge to cancer, his laboratory set up an experimental facility to study the impact of viperin and the small molecule ddhCTP in SARS-CoV-2 viral replication in cells.

Many immunologists have adapted all or some of their lab to help accelerate research into COVID-19. CRI Fellow Pranay Dogra, PhD, of Columbia University, processed and characterized the immune profiles of blood and airway samples of COVID-19 patients from intensive care units at NewYork-Presbyterian hospitals. He hopes to glean some insights from this analysis that can potentially help treatment of patients in the clinic. CRI Fellow Michael J. Hogan, PhD, of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, is working with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania to evaluate the T cell response in mice immunized with a COVID-19 mRNA vaccine encoding the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. This work lines up well with his study of the cellular pathways in helper T cells that are involved in recognizing viral infections and cancer.

In London, CRI Fellow Duncan Robert McKenzie, PhD, of the Francis Crick Institute, is using his experience with virus handling, cell preparation, and flow cytometry on a high-throughput immunomonitoring study of COVID-19 patients at King’s College London (KCL). He is part of a team that identified a core peripheral blood immune signature across 63 hospital-treated patients with COVID-19, which may guide future risk assessment and treatment as well as offer further insight into the development of the disease (Nature Medicine).

Several CRI fellows have noted their work in fundamental immunology is only peripherally related to the current pandemic, but hold hints of the complexity of the immune system and the difficulty in controlling COVID-19. For example, Chen Shen, PhD, at Boston Children’s Hospital noted that his work on NLRP6, which may exacerbate symptoms of pneumonia, holds new resonance today. One of the cell subtypes on which Kathleen Pestal, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley, works may be relevant to severe infection. Dr. Pestal found a paper that suggested its relevance and she plans to test a mouse-adapted strain as soon as possible.

Several organizations are also offering volunteer opportunities for CRI scientists. The San Diego COVID Research Enterprise Network (SCREEN), which is supporting the Microsetta Initiative in collecting and preserving SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA to help researchers better understand how the virus spreads, attracted CRI Fellow Miguel Reina-Campos, PhD, of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). The online Crowdfight COVID-19 community attracted CRI Fellow Li Zhang, PhD, of Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, to volunteer her expertise to researchers in need.

Amid all the disruptions of the global pandemic, many young researchers at the beginning of their careers saw labs shut down during lockdown orders or funding lost due to sudden revenue drops. We cannot afford to lose the next generation of leaders in cancer immunotherapy and in science. To address this crisis, the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) has awarded an unprecedented six-month extension of funding support for 23 postdoctoral fellows in addition to 32 new grants this fiscal year.

One former CRI Fellow, Shane Crotty, PhD, of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, demonstrates the tremendous potential of these future leaders through his own work on the immune response to SARS-CoV-2. Dr. Crotty and his colleague Alessandro Sette, PhD, have predicted which viral protein pieces would provoke the most powerful T cell responses, hypothesized that the T cell reactivity in some people reflects exposure to other circulating coronaviruses that can cause the common cold, and suggested that variegated T cell memory to coronaviruses that cause the common cold may underlie at least some of the extensive heterogeneity observed in COVID-19 disease. CNN, Buzzfeed, and The Atlantic have consulted the recipient of the 2019 Frederick W. Alt Award for New Discoveries in Immunology.

We thank these future scientific leaders for their work fighting both cancer and COVID-19.

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