Farah Hasan is excited about the promise of her field of immunology research at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
“Immunotherapy is exciting because, unlike traditional drugs, the immune system can change, similar to the way that viruses, bacteria and cancer can change to avoid being killed by treatments, so immunotherapy is closer to fighting fire with fire,” she says.
Advanced Placement Biology in high school first captured Hasan’s interest in science. She went on to major in biology for her undergraduate degree and planned to go to medical school. Then her plans changed.
“I realized that I was more interested in learning about and understanding diseases than in diagnosing and treating them,” says Hasan, now a fourth-year student in the Immunology Ph.D. degree program at the MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.
“I took an introductory immunology class in college, and I took a course on vaccines that got me thinking about the practical applications of immunology,” she recounts. “The more you learn about it, the more you realize how incredibly complex the immune system is. Learning about the immune system and the interplay between it and pathogens, as well as cancer, enables scientists to develop strategies for leveraging the immune system in treating disease.”
After college Hasan worked in a vaccine and cell therapy laboratory on clinical trials of immunotherapies for cancer and HIV. She came to MD Anderson to further develop her expertise.
“One thing that struck me about MD Anderson is the collaborative atmosphere and interest in innovation and openness to new ideas,” she says. “I was drawn to the graduate program here in part because the faculty are approachable and genuinely interested in students’ development.”
Upon meeting Cassian Yee, M.D., professor of Melanoma Medical Oncology and Immunology and now her research advisor, and others in his lab, Hasan was immediately comfortable and thought they would work well together.
“He has a good sense of humor but also wants his trainees to be their best. I appreciate that he treats me like a colleague in training – he takes my ideas seriously and gives me the autonomy and resources to pursue them while still helping me develop and refine them. Over time this support has helped build my confidence as an independent scientist and thinker,” she says.
The lab focuses on T cells, a type of white blood cell that plays a key role in the immune system. These cells can be used to make a treatment called Adoptive Cellular Therapy (ACT), which involves the isolation and growth of cancer-specific T cells that are infused into patients. These T cells can go to tumor sites, kill cancer cells and potentially provide a long-lasting protective response.
“This protection against recurrence relies on the creation of ‘memory’ T cells that remain in the body long-term, even after the cancer is eliminated,” Hasan says. “If these memory cells are successfully created, the patient could, theoretically, not have to receive continuous treatment. My research focuses on making a particular kind of memory T cell that stays in the tissues to act as a frontline defender.”