AACR Highlights: Q&A with Kellie N. Smith, PhD
We connected with Kellie N. Smith, PhD, a Research Associate in Drew Pardoll’s lab at the Bloomberg~Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Johns Hopkins. Following are the highlights from our conversation:
Kellie, thank you for speaking to us. Tell us about your AACR presentation topic – your research and some of the implications of what you’re discovering?
The session is a pathology methods workshop. The title of my talk is, “The MANA Functional Expansion of Specific T-cells (MANAFEST) Assay: A Sensitive Molecular Approach for Clinical Monitoring for Peripheral Anti-tumor Immunity.” MANA of course stands for Mutation Associated Neo-Antigens. I must admit that I feel a bit like a fish out of water, because I’m not a pathology researcher! But we believe this assay has broad and wide applications, and should be of high interest to the audience. The format of my talk is to take an in-depth look at how to execute the assay; it’s really a “how-to” session.
How would you describe your research to a non-scientist?
We’re exploring a new approach to monitor the anti-tumor immune response in cancer patients, especially those receiving immunotherapy. It’s our hope that, after assessing this approach in a large number of patients, it could actually serve as a predictor of response to therapy, and perhaps help clinicians to better predict which segments of patients will be responders (or non-responders), as a means to further improve treatment outcomes.
Most of our work done to date has been in lung cancer. That’s because we have a protocol that enables us to obtain pre- and post-treatment samples. But we’ve already performed this assay in melanoma and colorectal cancer patients, and believe it can be used with any cancer, which is really the beauty of it.
How is your team using the Adaptive immunoSEQ® Assay? How closely have you worked with the Adaptive team?
immunoSEQ is integral to what we’re doing. Without it, there really would be no MANAFEST assay. Because of Adaptive’s high-throughput sequencing, we’re able to accurately quantify T-cell clones, that we look at ex vivo. That’s crucial to our understanding of the immune response, both pre- and post-treatment. Without that ability to quantify T-cell clones, we simply wouldn’t be able to understand what’s happening with the patient.
We communicate frequently with the Adaptive team. I see Ian Kaplan, our account lead, on a weekly basis, but I communicate with him all the time. We also interact with Harlan Robins (Adaptive Scientific Head and co-founder) a few times per year. The Adaptive team is quite responsive, always interested in assisting us, and it’s helpful to talk to fellow scientists who really “get” what we’re trying to accomplish.
How long has this study been going on? How did you get involved in it?
I’ve been working with Dr. Pardoll for the last three years. I actually started out in HIV immunotherapy; my PhD (University of Pittsburgh) is in molecular virology and microbiology. When I finished my PhD program and began looking at post-doc fellowships, there were a lot of exciting options for me. But my husband and I are both from Baltimore and we wanted to return there. A friend suggested that I contact Dr. Pardoll at Hopkins, and so I did; I sent him a random email and the rest is happy history!
That’s quite a change for you, so we have lots of questions: How did you manage the transition from HIV/AIDS to cancer? How did you get interested in immunotherapy, and going back further, how did you know that science would become your career?
I’m the first person in my family to go to college. My mom is an administrative professional for the Port of Baltimore, and my father was trained as an electrician, although now he works for the National Security Agency, so I don’t really know what his specific job is, these days! My parents were wonderful role models and providers; I grew up with privilege and so wanted to “give back” with my own career. I suffered a severe injury as a teenager, so when I got to college I thought I would pursue physical therapy. But my life really changed when I took a class in scientific writing, and read the book, The Coming Plague, by Laurie Garett. I became deeply interested in HIV/AIDS. I had always been good at science, and felt jumping into HIV/AIDS would fulfill my desire to do well and to do good. I ended up doing considerable work in HIV immunotherapy, so the leap to Dr. Pardoll’s lab actually made a great deal of sense.
When you’re not working hard all day (or night!), what are your favorite activities?
I’m an animal lover, so they’re a big part of my life. For exercise, I teach aerial silks. If you’ve ever been to a Cirque du Soleil performance, you’ll see those athletic, acrobatic moves done by the performers while hanging onto vertically-hung silks – often 30 or 40 feet in the air. It’s beautiful to watch, and it’s a heck of a workout, too. In high school, I was a competitive baton twirler and actually our team won the “Olympic equivalent” World Championships! Baton also requires a lot of dance moves, so silks were actually a natural next thing for me to pursue as an adult.
Join Kellie N. Smith at AACR Session MW10 - Current and Future Pathology in the Era of Immunotherapy
The MANA functional expansion of specific T cells (MANAFEST) assay: A sensitive molecular approach for clinical monitoring of peripheral anti-tumor immunity
on Saturday, April 1, 9:30 am, Level 3, Ballroom C, at the Washington Convention Center.