Faculty Forum Online, Alumni Edition: Postdocs in Biotech

Faculty Forum Online, Alumni Edition:  Postdocs in Biotech


Hello and welcome to
the MIT Faculty Forum. I’m Karen Weintraub, an MIT
night fellow from the class of ’09, and a freelance
health and science journalist. And I’ll serve as
today’s moderator. As a reminder, we
welcome your questions during this chat for MIT. Alumni joining us
via Zoom, please use a Q&A feature
found on your toolbar. For all others
listening on YouTube, you may add your questions
to the comments field. We’ll also take
questions and comments on Twitter using
hashtag #MITBetterWorld. We’ll get to as many
questions as we can. Today we hear from
a panel of experts who will share some of their
current projects and research since leaving MIT as postdocs in
the biology and biotech space. We’re going to start
with an overview from each of the panelists. You might catch us up on
your career since leaving MIT and talk about your
current projects. First up is Nikhil Joshi who
is now an assistant professor in the Department
of Immunobiology at the Yale University
School of Medicine. While at MIT, Dr. Joshi worked
in the lab of Tyler Jacks, using models and other
advanced approaches to investigate how
immune cells interact with developing tumors. He won the 2017
Scientific Merit Award from the Lung Cancer
Research Foundation– Dr. Joshi? Thank you very much
for the invitation and I’m happy to be here to
talk about what I’ve been doing and how I started. So basically, when I was
a post-doc in Tyler’s lab, I developed an interest in
cancer immunology, and really, how we could use mouse models
to address complex questions in cancer knowledge. So there was a
number of models that had been developed by cancer
biologists over many years, and they weren’t exactly ideal
to use for cancer immunology questions. And we figured by
modifying these models and really developing
tools, we could start to ask questions
that were very difficult to ask at that point. And so in my own lab we’ve
taken that same approach, both designing and
developing models and also using models
that we had generated when I was a postdoc,
and others in the field had generated, to ask some basic
questions in cancer immunology. So we really focused
on two central areas. The first is the
central question– my lab works on t-cells and
their interactions with tumors as they’re developing
in the body. And so we asked two
central questions– the first is how these
immune cells, these t-cells, actually helped to shape
the development of a tumor? And then the second question
is how does the different tumor micro-environments and
different types of tumors, so say, a lung cancer
versus a melanoma, how does that impact the
function of the t-cells as the tumors develop? And so we’ve been doing this
now for about a year and a half, and a large part
of that has just been setting up the models. But one thing that that’s
been allowing me to do is also to go back a little
bit more to my roots. I was an immunologist
before I went to MIT, and i asked some more basic
questions about t-cell biology. And so we’re also
expanding into the areas of peripheral
tolerance, which is a property by which t-cells in
the body don’t attack yourself. And we’re trying to understand
some of the mechanisms using some of the models
I’ve developed to study cancer immunology
now, within this space. Fascinating, really cool. Next up is Dr. Versha
Banerji, a senior scientist at the University of Manitoba. Dr. Banerji graduated
from MIT in 2007. And while she was
in Cambridge, she worked at both the Broad
Institute and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. And she continues now to
search for less toxic ways to treat leukemia– Dr. Banerji? Sorry, sorry, about
that, thank you very much for that introduction. So I actually started
in 2007 at MIT– Oh, sorry, OK. And I finished in 2011. And I was in the lab of
Kimberly Stegmaier in the Cancer Research program
under Todd Golub. And my focus during that time
was to look for different ways to target acute myeloid
leukemia cells, mainly using cell lines as the
model, and either using genetic or drug perturbations,
and determining whether or not cells could move
from a leukemic state to a non-leukemic state based
on the different perturbations that we put them through. And I completed
this work in 2012 and then I moved back
to my roots, which were in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I’m a physician by training, an
internist, and a hematologist. And so I had the luxury of
combining both the basic realm with the clinical realm. And I established a practice in
chronic lymphocytic leukemia. And I established a program
where my model of research is actually using primary
patient samples and leukemia cells from them to try and
develop and understand ways in which drugs that may
be approved by the FDA, or those that are
still being made, for example, from the Broad– I have the opportunity to
test some of their samples in these primary
leukemia cells– and try and determine
their mechanisms of action. and in the way in
which they die. Finally, we’ve now
moved away from this. So we’re still doing a
lot of drug screening and primary samples,
but we’re trying to understand that cell
death may not be the best phenotype to try and target. And so we’re now
looking at changes in the metabolism
of these cells, mainly by targeting
mitochondrial enzymes that are abhorrently
expressed in leukemia cells versus normal
cells and trying to target these enzymes
in a phenotype that causes the mitochondria
in the cancer cells, but not the normal
cells, to slow down, and therefore, lead to
a cell death phenotype. And therefore,
this is happening, as we can see with lower
concentrations of drugs that are normally used in
clinical practice, and therefore, we
feel that this might enable us to treat patients
better, have them experience lower side effects from
existing medications, but also use certain medications
in combinations in better ways through clinical trials. Thank you. Great, really
interesting, thank you. We’ll get some more details
in a few minutes on that. Our last panelist is
Dr. Daniel Heller, who graduated, I
believe, in 2010, and is now an assistant
professor at the Weill Cornell Medical College at Cornell
University, New York City. At MIT, Dr. Heller to the
post-doc in the lab of infamous inventor, Rob Langer, where
he wrote a paper with Dr. Langer about treating metastatic
cancer with nanotechnology, work that he continues today
and will tell us about– Dr. Heller? Hi, thank you very much. So yeah, I was very
fortunate to be working– to have worked with
both Mike Strano in the chemical
engineering department and also Bob when I moved to
start my postdoc in the Koch, so that was a lot of fun. And I learned a lot about
nanotechnology, the development of nanomaterials. I actually have some
slides– you want me to show them now, or later? All right, should I go ahead? Let’s see if I can do this. there it is. Let’s see. So yeah, my lab started in– let’s see, so can
you all see that? Yes, we can. OK, so my lab started in 2012
and now it’s been five years. And I’ve been very lucky to
be in a move from the Koch Institute to a cancer
center where I can interact with the clinicians. There’s my lab right now. I’m on the 18th floor of
this skyscraper in Manhattan. That’s what we are. And my lab does– and we’re right across the
street from the hospital there, Sloan Kettering Hospital. We’re in the Upper East Side,
which you can see there. And so my position is
both at Sloan Kettering and Cornell Medical College. And I think of my– we think of ourselves, we
kind of came into this space– let me go back to that. We came into this space
as a bunch of engineers and started learning a whole
lot more about cancer biology that I think Nick kind of
knew, and we and we kind of were engineers and had
to learn on the fly. And so kind of sitting
in this cancer center, realizing that we’re
the only ones who were– or one of the very few people
that didn’t know nearly as much biology, we kind of– all the postdocs
that started with me kind of felt like
we were learning as the MIT students do, like
getting a drink from a fire hose and learning about
cancer biology on the ground. So we started
thinking ourselves– we were of ourselves
as the engineers, we’re making no rocket engines, but
instead a very nanomaterials, nanoparticles to detect
and treat cancer. And we started collaborating
with the biologists and we started
making research tools and working with them to see how
we can make the tools that will really accelerate the work. We try to make sensors
that can detect cancer. Mostly, it kind of
goes back to some of the work I did as a PhD
student with Mike Strano, and learning how we can apply
that to cancer research, and then collaborating
with doctors, people just like this,
but maybe not on TV, and learning about
how we can make better diagnostics and therapies. And so we kind of
really found ourselves collaborating a lot with the
people around us who were all either biologists or doctors. And so our– Dan, do you mind–
sorry, do you mind putting it on presentation? It’s a little small on this. OK, say that again? Doing it on– Putting it on presentation
mode rather than– Oh, I realize– –the slideshow? Right, the presentation
mode went to the other side. So I’ve been selecting
slides on the wrong screen. Sorry about that. No, it’s OK. So the– Thanks. So my lab basically spends its
time making probes and sensors, as well as now, particles. And yeah, sorry I don’t
think the presenter really works on that screen. But I’ll just– and
so, but I’ve been very lucky there to
kind of be in this kind of synergistic environment. And then I’ll go to
one more slide here to show that our lab focuses
on targeting therapies to both the pathway, that
thinking about targeted drugs in this way, where we think
about targeting a pathway, as well as targeting the
location, making the particles that make– putting drugs into
nanoparticles, targeting them to
sites of cancer and avoiding sites that
cause the toxic side effects. So let me unshare now. Sorry about that–
I realized I was looking at the wrong side
of it than other people. No– no worries. Again, if anybody wants to
ask questions of the panel, please use the Q&A feature
found in the toolbar. The first question, it’s
a actually great one, a good broad question
to start with. Where do you see personalized
immunotherapy, or personalized treatments coming? Are we going to have them within
the next five or 10 years? How realistic are they? So I don’t know who wants
to start with that one. I can start. OK, great. So in the realm
of immunotherapy, both in solid tumors such
as lung cancer, melanoma, and within the
hematologic cancer world, such as
non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or Hodgkin’s lymphoma,
immunotherapies are now making their ways
into the standard of care of treatment in patients. They’re easily accessible. I would say in the
last five to 10 years, mainly in the form
of clinical trial, but now, are available
routinely when required, based on the treatment algorithm
for that specific cancer. Great, Nick, did you
want to take that from your perspective? Yeah, I would. Just expand on that,
I think there’s a lot of different types of
personalized immunotherapy that are kind of coming online. And I guess one of
the big questions will be whether or not they’re
necessary in all cases. I think there will be some types
of cancers and some situations where it’s very difficult
to deal with the cancer and you don’t get
much of a response. Certain therapies like
anti-CTLA 4 or anti-PD1 are very successful– relatively successful in a
large number of patients. So it’s the patients who
don’t respond to those where you need this extra boost. And that’s where I think the
personalized therapies will really come in. I think it’s even also much
more of a win now, the idea that we’re even
talking about it, because probably
five, 10 years ago, the idea of doing personalized
cancer therapies was really, a very foreign concept. And now it’s
something that seems very doable in a
broad setting, so I think that that’s a huge
step forward in itself. And so I think it will
play a major role, but we’ll have to see how
the sort of broad therapies play out first. And whether we can afford them. Yeah. Dan, did you want to take
that one, or should w– Yeah, I feel that
there’s going to be– I mean, I’ve just been feeling
very optimistic, which is– and kind of more optimistic
than I have been before. And I think I kind
of felt it here, from the cancer center,
where just there’s so many– so much progress in
the last few years. And so I think that
things are going to really be making big headway next
few years in immunotherapy, in general, and in
personalized immunotherapy. Great, the next
question is, “what frustrations or
challenges do you have–” oops, sorry, that just
disappeared on me– “do you have working
with pharma companies?” I don’t know if any– if you guys do work
with pharma directly. But what are the challenges and
frustrations of that process? [CLICKS TONGUE] So I do. You have to understand that
I’m in a different country and their rules and
regulations are different and the access to
certain compounds is often a little bit more
difficult and a little bit more challenging. So I obviously miss that
aspect of my training and access to pre-clinical
clinical drugs, and the ties that the labs and the
academic research forum had with industry. I think that’s something
that I don’t see as much of, especially in a smaller place. I think it may be different
in the larger centers, such as Vancouver or Toronto. But I do actually
get a lot of support in the setting of
clinical trials, trying to get access to therapy. I also, because our funding
scheme is different for care, sometimes treatments are
available but not funded through the traditional
means, and so pharmaceutical companies will
open compassionate access programs so patient
can access these types of novel treatments. And then unrestricted
research funding to help move research
programs forward are also means that we have
to work with industry to try and bring novel
treatments to patients, which in smaller centers, is
a great way to work, in collaboration with
industry and academia. Mm-hmm. Anybody else have
anything to say? Daniel? Nope, nope. I’ll just say that I think that
there’s a lot of opportunities once you start a lab to
interact with pharmaceuticals, and it kind of depends
on what you want. I think the previous speaker
had a really good point about, especially if you’re
in patient care, or you have a lot of
really good opportunities to move the science
forward, and you always have this question– do you want
to spend your effort working with pharmaceuticals? Because there are challenges
associated with it. But they can open
a lot of doors, so from my own
personal perspective, I sort of talk to a
lot of pharmaceuticals. It hasn’t quite
come to fruition, so I had to learn that there’s
unique challenges to that, and I think as a post-doc, I
didn’t quite appreciate that as much as I do now. Dan, anything add
on that one, or–? Oh, I would definitely echo Nik. I talked to– just having the
ability to talk to these people and learning from
them has been amazing. [SNEEZES] I certainly get an
appreciation of the process of drug development
that I couldn’t before. I think I’m going to start– I’m co-directing a course
on drug development in the spring with some pharma. And basically, what
I’m going to do is sit there and learn
from them because I think the drug development
process is something that, in academia, we only
hear a little bit about. But talking with pharma,
we learn so much more. Great, and somebody had a
follow-up for you, Versha. They would love to hear
the Canadian perspective on nationalized medicine and
emerging US health policy changes. So that’s– How does that influence
your work, if at all? It does. It influences our work
on a regular basis. I will say that I work in
a public health care system where everyone has equal
access to the care. And for cancer treatments
in my province, anything that’s
given intravenously is covered by the
government, and anything that is now available in oral
format, so taken by mouth, is also now covered
as long as it’s been approved through
a national process that has deemed the evidence
behind the clinical trials to be effective, which I know
is not the case in the United States, and the system’s
mainly based on who can either pay for it out of pocket, or
the insurance companies that might fund them, depending
on what your coverage is. So my opportunities to
bring treatments to patients is actually a
little bit greater. I have patients. My practice is mainly
of elderly patients, where 10 years ago, I had
two options for treatment. That has extended greatly
to have multiple options, either in the form of
chemotherapy or oral treatments. And as a result, I’m not using
age or other discriminating factors in choosing who I
would give these treatments to. Everyone would have equal
access to the treatments, which means a 98-year-old is
as eligible for treatment as a 35-year-old, which
has totally changed how I practice medicine. But without the research
that happens behind, I wouldn’t even have those
things to offer them. So I think it is a
different system. I lived in the States. I benefited from
the system there. You’re far more efficient. You have easy access to care. Your wait times are less. But when it comes to providing
sort of these more expensive therapies, I can see how
that can be challenging in the United States. Sort of following up on that,
too, do you face funding woes? Is that stymieing your research? How much is that
keeping you up at night? In the Canadian environment? Yeah, and then the
other two in the US. Our granting schemes are
under fire, currently. So in order to pay
for public health care and public education and
public child care subsidies, we lose in other aspects. So the government
funding for research is quite limited and tight. We’ve gone through
a restructuring through national agencies. And the other thing
that is different is that the maximum value of
the grants here is far, far less than the maximum value of grants
that are awarded in the United States, unless you’re part of
these multimillion dollar team grants. And being in a
smaller institution, those opportunities
are also less. And so we’ve had– when I started my
career in 2011, it was the lowest
funding rates for grants. We’re currently, probably,
still sitting in the 7% to 9% of people who are funded
amongst all different types of competitions. And you’re looking at $60,000 to
$100,000 a year for the budget that you’re working with. So our salaries
are not included, which is different
than the United States. Our universities, or clinical
practice, or what other means, provide our salary income. But salaries for
everybody who works within the labs and all the
reagents within fall to grants. Right, so nobody has the labs,
the Langer-sized labs with 150– Well, post docs, or whatever. Well, not the 150. But I mean, Toronto
and Vancouver do have some large-scale
lab with multimillion dollar fundings. But often, they are
competitive enough to actually apply
for US granting and are successful in
the US granting agency. So they may actually have
some of the NIH funding and some major CHIR funding. But those are few
and far between in the Canadian
global environment. And Dan and Nik, are
you guys up at night worrying about funding? Yeah, I don’t think I’ve reached
the stage yet where I’m up. I’m still too new. I’m still in the
honeymoon phase, I think, of running a lab. Good. But I don’t know. It doesn’t scare me yet,
the application for funding. I think the odds are not always
great, but we like what we do, and I think you just write
more grants at this point and just hope for the best. But I think, in general,
most people will find funding for what they’re
working on, and so as long as you can
communicate your science and work on
interesting things, I think there will be granting
agencies that will fund it, so at least I’m hopeful. That MIT confidence, right? Yeah. Dan? Yeah, what Versha
said about starting when it was at the worst
it had ever been was– I always like to be
optimistic, so I thought, well, if it’s the worse
it’s ever been, hopefully it will
go up from here. And so it has gotten
slightly better than 2012 when I started, but
not a whole lot better. And now it’s been
five years and I think I’ve put in about
14 big NIH grants. And finally, the first
one hit very recently, so I feel like I got that
by the skin of my teeth. And now, especially
with timing for thinking about going for up for– to stay here in a
promotion/tenure type track things, so I was very
lucky at that very moment. But I was lucky in the beginning
to get this new innovator grant, and so that
kept me going. But I mean, I just feel
like I’ve been lucky enough to stay in the game. And it’s, of course, because
I’ve been submitting things left and right. And so hopefully,
with the next budget, that it’s not going
to throw a big– throw us for a loop. But so I guess I
can keep remaining cautiously optimistic. Great, switching gears for
a minute, somebody asks, “are any of you holding
out hope for CRISPR to be behind major
advances in your labs?” Anybody a CRISPR fan? Always, probably, Nik, you’re
the guy to talk about CRISPR. I could just say I’m pretty
sure it’ll be useful in general. Or it’s obviously useful now, or
going to be useful in general. And for therapeutic applications
is what I always think about with drug delivery,
is can someone put CRISPR in a
nanoparticle and target it to a certain
location in the body and make that a
therapeutic method? And I think a lot of
people in my field have been thinking
about that a lot. And I think they’re starting
to get traction in the lab. And I think it’s
going to get somewhere in the clinic in the hopefully
not-too-distant future. Yeah, I think these days,
in biology research, it’s hard to imagine
that you would get away without using it. It’s so pervasive. Every lab is using it. It’s really
democratized the ability to do certain types of research,
both in different species, and also in every lab
can now make knockouts. So we, of course,
like most labs use it. I don’t know that we’re pushing
the science forward in the way that labs at MIT were really
pushing forward CRISPR science, but we’re benefiting
tremendously from the work that is being
and was done by those labs. Cool, another
question, “how do you see the role of radiation
therapy changing as immunotherapy treatments
become more available?” Any thoughts on that, Nik? Well, I can talk
a little about– just a tiny bit about radiation
therapy and immunotherapy. And just like when
a radiation therapy has been complementary
to chemotherapy, I think there’s ways– more therapeutic
options are better, in that there’s ways to combine
them and make them synergistic. And so I think, in general,
having immunotherapy as kind of another method
that can be combined with certain medicines, whether
chemotherapy or radiation, I think, there’s going to
be a lot of synergy there. Hm. Anybody else on that one? I would just echo what Dan said. It’s a really exciting time
for immunotherapy, in general. And we’re– there’s lots
of combination trials, and some of the early stuff
combining radiation therapy with immunotherapy is
really encouraging. So I think both, it will
take on its traditional role where it’s used widely
and has effectiveness in a lot of different
cancer types, but I think in combination
with immunotherapies, there’s going to be a number
of patients who benefit greatly from them. So the radiation will
kill off some cells and send signals to alert
the immune system, or what? I think that’s the idea. I mean, some of the
most impressive details is this idea that
you can irradiate one tumor in maybe a site
that’s very easily accessible, and then give immunotherapy
and actually get shrinking of other tumors. This is called the
abscopal effect. And there’s data– while
it’s still pretty rare, it’s happening much more
when you do that combination, and that’s a really
exciting idea. It means you no longer, say,
have to radiate the brain. You might be able to
actually trigger a response. And so that’s really an amazing
thing if it comes to fruition. So I would say that
in that combination, you might be able to do
some really unique things that immunotherapy
alone can’t do. That would be fantastic. And obviously, the goal is
to help more and more people, and with longer and
longer lasting benefits. Just a big– in cancers,
so big challenges ahead. A question here for Dr. Heller– “do you see nano-sensors being
used for predictive purposes, as well as for treatment,
i.e., Is everyone going to swallow a 25-year
pill at age 18 and have it take care of us?” I think there’s a lot of
work going in that direction. And I think, actually,
there’s a sensor that came out from
Bob Langer’s lab where someone swallows a pill
and you get some measurements that could be– that you can get
outside the body. So my lab is kind of working
on implantable sensors that talk to wearables. And so we think about
that a lot, as well. Right now, where FitBits
can measure things like– or iWatches can measure things
like pulse and heart rate and blood oxygenation
maybe, and then– for ones that are a
little bit further along, and can we then
combine them with, say, and implanted sensor
that measures a marker, a biomarker with ease? So I think there’s a lot of
work going on that direction, a lot of people are excited. I think the funding
is starting to come from venture capital and
people who really want to take that to the clinic. So I think it’s not going
away as long as there’s funding to keep the work
up on both the science side and the technology
development side. I think we’re going to see a lot
of exciting things really soon. And then there’s Eric
Alm, also at MIT, who is working on the
stuff that comes out, so he wants toilet sensors
for what we can tell. That has been– clinicians
have talked to me and said, can you make a sensor that goes
in the toilet and can measure and you can get
samples that way? And I’ve been
thinking about that. I haven’t started my lab
quite in that direction yet, but there is
definitely clinicians who believe that that
is a way that it can go, and I tend to believe them. So I think there’s ways
to get samples that way, non-invasively,
and so that’s good. And that would be
primarily for diagnostics, or seeing if something is
having an effect, or what? I think it could definitely
be for diagnostics, for some. Now we’re getting better at
looking at things like xosomes, excreted RNA, DNA,
and so there are ways to do it diagnostically. I think most of the types
of information people are going to want has to
do with maybe risk factors, so if someone has a
risk factor, or they’re being treated for a
disease, or there’s a risk of recurrence of
something like cancer, then there’s definitely
a reason to measure. Maybe more further
down the line, would be things like
screening at early stages, and so the question is always
how much data do you really want to get from a– and hypochondriacs
are going to start to love getting a lot
of data, or hate it. So I think, at first,
there’s definitely reasons where if someone
has a risk factor, one can do kind of
real-time measurements and get kind of– say,
recurrence of cancer, much earlier than one
could in the past. So the hope is that those
kind of technologies will come online. That’d be great. There’s another question here
to that about ingested sensors. What about security? Are we going to be hacked
for our swallowed censors? Do we have to worry about that? Well, I think more
problematic is when that information leaves
the censor, where are you going to send it? Are you going to send
it to the patient, or are you going to send
it to the doctor directly? And so I worry more about
too much information that the patient doesn’t
really want to get, or will the doctor be inundated
with much information. So we have to worry about that
kind of flow of information. To me, more than hacking,
just because hacking might happen on– could happen to a
whole institution, and that’s bad in general, and
that could happen right now. And there have been data
leaks, patient data leaking in certain institutions. And then there’s
also hacking kind of on the individual
scale, where one person starts to broadcast their data. It might happen once
in a while, but I think that in general,
it’s not going to be that everybody’s
data starts getting hacked from their
own implanted sensors, or ingestible sensors. I don’t see that being
as much of a problem. Just might pack the president’s
sensors, or something. Yeah, that’s– no, they’ll
have to have an extra level of encryption. Right, switching gears
again a little bit, “what do you think of
the technique of removing the red blood cells and beefing
them up,” somebody asks? I don’t know if that’s
Versha, for you? Is that– I don’t know that I can
comment much on that. There are certain
diseases which may lead to defects in
red blood cells, and there’s lots
of clinical trials and new technology that’s being
done, such as gene therapy, for hemophiliacs,
things like that. So there is a lot of
real life application of that process that’s currently
being tested and looking like it might be actually
quite successful. So I think that they’re– I’m not really sure
what they mean by that, is it like for doping so that
you’re better athletically, or because you want
to cure hemophilia, or hemoglobinopathies? But these things actually
might provide benefit to people so that they’re not subject
to the current treatments that actually can be shortening
life on a day-to-day basis, and actually provide a means
for these patients to survive. So it’s coming and
it’s being tested and it looks quite positive. Great, and are there
specific types of leukemia that you see as sort
of the lowest hanging fruit, or the likeliest
to be addressed or cured, ideally, first? So in children, there’s
been a lot of headway that’s been made with acute
lymphoblastic leukemia. In adults, the poster child of
new developments in treatment has been chronic lymphocytic
leukemia, and some of that stems from the fact that the
patient samples are actually quite accessible
and easy to attain. However, with the new
treatments and the way they’re designed
where patients may go on novel oral
treatments for years on end without any interruption
in treatment, that resource is
actually becoming scarcer as the treatments
become more effective and the samples
become less available. So now, we’re mainly
capturing samples at relapse and therefore, we’re not
really understanding, in time, how things are changing
unless we’re trying to sample the samples on a routine basis. We’re trying to do
this, but obviously, if the treatment is
working, your sample– ability to sample
becomes less and less. As a result, there’s
a lot more headway being made in the realm
of what I would say elderly acute myeloid leukemia. And typically,
younger patients are treated with very
aggressive treatments that usually patients
under the age of 70 or 65 may not be able to
tolerate, and as a result, those patients were not
given very many good options for treatment. However, there has
been recent treatments that are now
available, which means that we would be getting
these patients to the clinic rather than having them
either go to palliative care, or to their family
doctor to be cared for. And therefore, the
access to those samples now may actually increase,
and therefore, people can start studying them because
they have access to the sample and intervention’s
going to be made. And we can start looking
at this patient population because they may not have the
same disease as the younger patients and we want to
know how each patient’s age and medical condition
actually contributes to their response to treatment. And so I think that’s the
next low hanging fruit. I mean, you have to take
out the chronic myelogenous leukemia, which is technically
very well-managed and almost cured, and patients don’t
have to be on treatment for long periods of
time any longer, as long as they’re in what’s called
a molecular remission. And so those are three
different kind of vignettes of where treatment
for leukemia has come, the least advance
being made in acute myeloid leukemia both
in the young patients and the old patients. So I think with some
of the newer agents that are targeting the apoptotic
pathway, BCL2 emetics, which are actually gaining some
evidence in both trials and off-label use, actually, may
provide new treatment options for a patient population
we traditionally did not have treatments for. Right, we tend to forget
in the general public how important basic
data is, obviously. It drives your work. Nik, did you want to
add anything to that? Nothing specific, I think that
was a really good summary. The only I would say
that may be relevant is that some of the
therapies, I think, that are coming online
for the leukemias are really, very exciting. Some of these CAR T therapies
and the ability to modify t-cells and actually
change the– make-your-own
treatment, essentially, is a really exciting thing,
and especially an engineering background that we
all get from MIT, it’s a really exciting idea. I forgot about the
the CAR Ts, sorry. I think that that
will really just add more excitement to this field. Great, and are
any of you looking at all at breast cancer? Might your work inform
breast cancer research? Yeah, in my lab,
we’re mostly thinking about targeted treatment
for breast cancer. And so we’ve been
making nanoparticles to try to put targeted
therapy than into particles to target the drug to breast
cancer, improve the drug and to reduce its side effects. And so we’ve been thinking
a lot about that we’re collaborating with breast
cancer researchers here. And then in general, we’re
looking at possible plantable diagnostics and different
types of diagnostics to detect it early. The hope is to– my labs, when we
started, we thought our biggest goal was to try to
either make targeted treatment to metastatic cancer or try to
catch it before it happened. So that’s been what
we think about a lot. CAR T for breast cancer,
or a solid tumor’s going to fall to
CAR T at some point? I think that there’s
definitely a possibility there. And I think people
are thinking about– are doing these trials or
starting these trials a lot. The question with t-cell therapy
in general with solid tumors is, how do you make sure
that the t-cells get in there and into the solid tumors? And so some of the
drug delivery people are thinking about
that a lot now. Mm-hmm, pulling
back a little bit, we have some more
policy-related questions. Do you leverage
publicly available clinical and other data in
your research, and if so, how? Anybody have any other– Yes, I do. So we have the luxury of having
a lot of centralized database in the province of Manitoba
that are clinical in nature. So we have access to hospital
billing information, costs of different
treatments, and then the basic patient demographics,
and we have a cancer registry. And then in our
CLL clinic, we have a clinic-specific database. So all of our
correlative sciences can be tapped into
this wealth of data. And so we try and when we
look at in-vivo and in-vitro responses in how either new
treatments are implemented in clinical practice,
or how cells in a dish respond to treatment,
we actually have the ability to
know their stage, and have they receive
previous treatment, any genetic abnormalities
that are normally followed? And then we can, over time,
look at their survival data, as well. So it’s public in the sense
that if you apply for it, you can access it, but there are
lots of hoops to jump through. You guys, do you do any of that,
or otherwise, I’ll jump to– we’ve got two final questions
in our last four minutes, here. The first one is, “have
you personally seen the effects of changing
immigration policy on your grad student or
post-doc population?” Any of you– So I’ll comment on that. My employees in the lab
have not been affected, but there is quite
a bit of anxiety amongst members in the
department, students and trainees. I think it’s been a– especially when a lot
of this first happened, it’s been a very
unnerving time for them. And even more than just
directly people being affected and unable to work, it’s
also just this uncertainty that’s been very hard for
a large fraction of people who come from foreign places. So we’ve been trying
to be as reassuring– I mean, obviously,
Yale, as a university, has way more power
than any of us do. But I think as a community,
we try and come together and try and be supportive. And so far, as far
as I know, no one has been adversely affected,
but it is a concern, I think. Versha, you guys might benefit
from some of the unrest and uncertainty here, I guess. Yes, we– it’s interesting. We do get a lot of
foreign applications. But at the same
time, we’re trying to recruit local talent as
well, so we’re open to anybody who wants to study. Great, and the last question,
I’ll pose to all three of you, I guess. “What advice would you give
my 19-year-old daughter, also at MIT, who wants
to go into biotech? What major should she pick?” Well, I can address
that a little bit. I was a history
major in undergrad and that was actually really
great for learning to write, and so I’d say
that’s a good one. But maybe a little more
seriously, I would– especially in an
MIT community, I’d say it’s great to be
in a quantitative field because it gives you a
lot of great ammunition for going from there to
others, so engineering, electrical engineering kind
of put you in a good place to address so many questions. Quantitatively, a
lot of bioinformatics is really coming online now
in pharma as well as academia, and has been there
for a little while. So I’d say if you can use
your quantitative skill– if you have quantitative
skills and you could use them, I would definitely
think about that first. Not to say that you can’t
go into biology, as well. Great, thanks– Versha? Oops, your mic’s off. –different path in that
I did medicine and all my clinical training
first, and then I started doing research
a little bit more heavily at the bench side. And so I think it really
depends on what you want and what your interests are. And I think it’s important to
realize that the system can mold to meet your
needs as long as you know what you can access. And I think she’s got a wealth
of opportunity where she is. I didn’t come from that. I was given an opportunity
and I ran with it. And I think that’s really the– for someone who’s young, they
need to have their head in it and they have to want to do it. And if they don’t
have those in mind, they’re doing it because they
think that’s the right thing to do, they may not get
to where they want to be. So dad shouldn’t be
too pushy about– or mom– about what to major in? Nick, we’ll give
you the last word. I’ll echo what Versha said. I think doing something
that you’re passionate about is probably the number
one thing in terms of picking a topic to actually
work on and pursue as a major. But I think the
other thing, which MIT does a very good
job of, is actually giving access to the labs
and actually go and do it. I had undergrads my
entire time at MIT and they were some of the
most amazing researchers that I encountered. And some of them
had no experience, but they just wanted
to do some thing and they took advantage of that
ability to come in and do it. And some of them went
on to do research, some went on to med school,
but they all, I think, gained a lot from
just the experience of going into the labs. And there’s a lot
of opportunities to do that for students
at MIT, so that’s what I would focus on. Great, thank you all
so much on behalf of the Alumni Association. Thanks for tuning into
this Faculty Forum Online and to our alumni
panel panelists from the University of
Manitoba, Yale, and Cornell. If anybody has any
lingering questions, we can forward them
to the panelists. And you can tweet
about today’s chat using the hashtag
@MITBetterWorld and send follow-up
questions or feedback to [email protected] Thanks so much for watching. Thanks.

Danny Hutson

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