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Physician Resource

Researcher Q&A: How Kristin Anderson, PhD, Builds Stronger Cancer Killers

In her lab at UVA Health, Kristin Anderson, PhD, focuses on a key target: building a more efficient cancer killing machine.

Specifically, she works to engineer T cells that are better equipped to evade cancer cells' defenses. Ultimately, she hopes to translate her research into more effective treatments for pancreatic and ovarian cancers.

A cancer survivor herself, Anderson is passionate about developing immunotherapies. These offer more targeted, personalized treatments that avoid the negative side effects of current treatments.

Below, Anderson discusses her work and answers questions about her research.

What are you working on right now?

Our primary research goal is to generate T cells that can recognize and kill solid tumors. In particular, ovarian and pancreatic cancers. Both of these tumor types present many obstacles to the immune system. Our research aims to generate T cells that can overcome these hurdles to kill cancer more effectively.

We have 3 major research areas at the moment:

  • Engineering T cells to ignore suppressive signals in tumors
  • Modulating T cell metabolism to promote T cell persistence and function in tumors
  • Developing better pre-clinical models for ovarian cancer to address our scientific questions

What are the most intriguing potential clinical applications of your work?

The type of research we do is translational because:

  • The discoveries we make are inspired by clinical observations and samples donated by patients for research
  • The tools we build in the lab can be rapidly developed into therapies to treat patients with cancer

Right now, we are working on understanding how the T cells we engineer could be combined with other treatments currently in the clinic to make the T cells kill tumors even better. Clinical trials have taught us that some treatments work moderately well on their own, but work much better when they are combined with another complementary treatment. We hope to use what we learn in the lab to design better engineered T cells for patients.

What made you choose UVA Health as the place to do your research?

I chose to start my independent research lab at UVA Health because I was inspired by the great research already being done here and the opportunities to expand my research program. Not only were the people I met incredibly happy to be at UVA Health, but they were also very excited to combine our expertise and explore new research directions together.

It is impossible to be an expert in everything, especially with the rapid advancements being made in research technologies. UVA Health has experts in many areas that are new to me. But these new areas are logical directions to expand my research. I enthusiastically welcome opportunities to collaborate — team science is powerful — and UVA Health struck me as a wonderful home for my budding research program.

What do you wish more people knew about your area of research?

For many years, our only tools to treat cancer were surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Immunotherapy is an amazing new pillar in cancer care that offers an opportunity for targeted and personalized treatment. Some immunotherapies can be designed to avoid many of the side effects that negatively impact a patient’s quality of life. Even though immunotherapies can take a long time to develop, they are already rapidly becoming a standard of care for many types of cancer.

How did you become interested in your area of research?

When I was a PhD student, I was diagnosed with aggressive localized breast cancer. I had an incredible care team, and after I finished treatment and completed my training, I wanted to “pay it forward.”

Since my research in graduate school focused on the type of T cells that are effective killers, I chose to pivot into a research area focused on releasing the full cancer-killing potential of T cells.

I am passionate about developing treatments for patients who currently have limited treatment options, so this became the focus of my independent research lab.

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