This summer, I worked on cancer immunotherapy projects. Our goals were to develop chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapies that can target and kill cancer cells, and overcome some of the major obstacles of the basic CAR T cell therapy. This encompasses the design of new receptor constructs using cell biology techniques, the production of viruses that can mediate transduction of T cells, activation and transfection of T cells, and the subsequent assays to determine the killing potential of these cells on cancer cells.
CARs confer T cells MHC-independent specificity to tumor antigens and strong activation through T cell receptor (TCR) and costimulatory domains. Yet, limitations exist. One of them is monospecificity: CARs can only be specific to one tumor antigen, yet many tumor cells can express various tumor-specific antigens and even loose expression of target antigens. In order to tackle this, we focus on the development of universal immune receptors (UIR) that can allow for the covalent binding of multiple tumor associated antigens (TAA). Various costimulatory and regulatory signals are also being studied.
Through my research experience I acquired knowledge and skills that helped me understand how the immune system is engineered to treat cancer. I mastered cloning techniques and learned how to work with molecular biology software. I learned to activate and manipulate T cells so that they express the desired receptors. I also had great exposure to many different in vitro assays that are used to test the effectiveness of CAR T cells, and sophisticated equipment that automate them.
My educational experience at Penn has been influenced and enhanced by participating in this project in many ways. It let me explore my academic interests in a completely practical way, it helped me guide my focus within the biomedical sciences, and it let me share with and learn from brilliant and professional scientists.