It’s been a summer unlike any other, and the 13 undergraduate students who embarked on a BioCanRx-funded research internship in cancer immunotherapeutics during a global pandemic have likely had an experience like no other. Some have been able to do work in the lab, while others chose to defer their internships. Whatever the circumstances, we are so proud of their resilience and dedication in these strange times.
In keeping with tradition, we asked two students to expand on their summer internship experiences. Meet Coby Rangsitratkul, who worked with Dr. Lee-Hwa Tai at Université de Sherbrooke, and Torin Halvorson, who worked with Dr. Julian Lum at the BC Cancer’s Deeley Research Centre.
1. Who are you? Where did you go to school? What’s your program? One fun fact about yourself!
2. Why did you want to do cancer research this summer?
Coby Rangsitratkul: Learning the theoretical concepts underlying the development of cancer in class is one thing, but it’s quite another to closely study the mechanisms by which a cancer cell can evade a patient’s immune response and to witness the development of a potential immunotherapy. I wanted to do cancer research this summer because I wanted to learn how an oncolytic virus can redirect a patient’s immune response against his/her own tumor and I wanted to have a glimpse of the bumpy – and yet so rewarding – pathway leading to the development of a novel immunotherapy that could potentially become a cancer treatment.
Torin Halvorson: I decided to pursue cancer research this summer for two reasons. First, I find the biological complexity of cancer to be a uniquely challenging and interesting topic. I enjoy solving problems, and cancer is one of the greatest unsolved issues in medicine today. Second, since cancer affects so many people around the world, cancer research is one of the most clinically applicable fields of biology and presents a highly relevant challenge to both scientists and clinicians. Cancer research has the potential to improve the lives of many people, a concept I find hugely motivating in my studies.
3. What did you work on this summer? What did you discover?
Coby Rangsitratkul: During this summer I characterized the immunogenic signature of bladder cancer cells infected with a novel oncolytic virus expressing an immune transgene. In order to do so, I generated human bladder cancer spheroids in vitro and infected them with the recombinant virus initially constructed in Dr. Lee-Hwa Tai’s lab. I observed a great amount of cell death in infected bladder cancer spheroids using immunofluorescent staining and live-cell imaging. I collected conditioned media in which infected bladder cancer spheroids were submerged and evaluated the immunogenic properties of the extracellular milieu by conducting different assays. I found that damage-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs) such as ATP and HMGB1 were released in significant quantities from infected bladder cancer spheroids. I also had the opportunity to process bladder cancer tumor resected from patients and grow them into organoids in vitro in order to test the recombinant virus as an immunotherapy on actual bladder cancer patient tumor tissues.
Torin Halvorson: I completed my summer studentship at BC Cancer’s Deeley Research Centre, in the laboratory of Dr. Julian Lum. There, I have been investigating the potential of engineering chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T cells to use fructose as an alternative carbon source in the tumor microenvironment. Metabolic competition between T cells and tumor cells for glucose severely impairs CAR-T cell survival and effector function in the tumor microenvironment, and is an important barrier to targeting solid tumors using CAR-T cell therapy. By allowing CAR-T cells to utilize fructose in addition to glucose, CAR-T cells may be able to escape metabolic competition for glucose in the tumor microenvironment. This could improve the survival and effector function of CAR-T cells, and potentially expand the range of target cancers for CAR-T cell therapy by enabling targeting of solid tumors.
4. What was one memorable moment from this past summer during your studentship?
Coby Rangsitratkul: My time as a student intern in Dr. Lee-Hwa Tai’s lab was a great experience. I had the opportunity to work with a wonderful and supportive team, to have workmates become new friends and I was exposed to plenty of opportunities such as participating writing scientific articles and to geting involved in Canadian scientific committees related to immunology and immunotherapy. I’m currently starting an accelerated master’s degree program in Dr. Tai’s lab to prolong my cancer immunotherapy adventure.
Torin Halvorson: The most memorable moment of my studentship experience was my first experiment in the laboratory. It was a simple restriction digest procedure, but I had not accumulated much laboratory experience prior to this, and I fully expected to make a mistake and end up with nonsensical data. However, upon imaging my gel after the experiment, I was shocked to find that the procedure had actually been successful! This was an important step for me in developing confidence in my own practical laboratory skills.
5. How did this research experience impact your career development?
Coby Rangsitratkul: During this research experience I had the opportunity to test an immunotherapy on resected tumors collected from patients. Seeing that my research samples came from actual cancer patients made me reflect on how the health and quality of life of a patient can be affected by the detrimental effects of cancer. With my recent entry into graduate studies, I hope to arrive on the other side of the translational bridge that links the cancer research field to the patient in order to get into medical school. Being a physician-scientist is a career path that I’m considering as I’m keenly interested treating patients and conducting biomedical research.
Torin Halvorson: This research experience has cemented my interest in future biomedical research. I entered into this project without a clear idea of a career path, but I had wanted to gain experience in cancer research to see whether it interested me. Fortunately, it did. I am now aiming to pursue an MD/PhD program and a career as a clinician-scientist. I would like to eventually be in a position where I can conduct basic science and translational research in cancer, immunology or a related field, while applying my findings to treat patients directly in the clinic. My summer studentship has given me valuable research experience and knowledge that will undoubtedly be great assets to me in these pursuits.
6. What is your hope for cancer treatment/care in the future?
Coby Rangsitratkul: I hope that one day there will be enough treatments directed against each type of cancer in order to provide a safe and efficient care adapted to each patient without harmful side effects or the possibility of developing treatment resistance. I hope for a future where people diagnosed with cancer can still preserve a long-lasting quality of life after being treated with effective precision therapeutics.
Torin Halvorson: I would like to see a world free from cancer in my lifetime. I believe this is possible, and that it will be accomplished not with some universal cure, but by the increasingly precise targeting of patient-specific cancers. For example, I believe that cancer treatment in the future will be personalized, with rapid genetic sequencing of tumors allowing for selection of the most optimal treatment for any given patient. Immunotherapy has an important role to play as one of these treatment options, and I hope to be a part of future developments allowing immunotherapy to become an effective treatment for an increasingly broad range of cancers. Furthermore, I hope to see more resources allocated to cancer prevention research, including prevention at early stages of human development through genetic methods, as prevention of cancer onset is an even more favourable outcome than effective treatment.
7. General input from research supervisor:
Dr. Lee-Hwa Tai: A summer internship is your privilege and opportunity to discover and contribute to science. Spend as much time as possible in the lab! Jump at the chance to learn many techniques that are related or unrelated to your project. Don’t squander the experience!
Interested in joining the summer student program? Find out more.