On the Front Lines of Cancer Research

June 13, 2017 by School of Medicine Webmaster

Via UVA Giving

Down the hushed hallways of the Carter-Harrison Research Building, home to the Beirne B. Carter Center for Immunology Research, lies a hive of research activity. In lab after lab, dedicated researchers—ranging from undergraduates and graduate fellows to post-docs and senior faculty members—passionately search for new ways to treat and cure disease.

One of those researchers is assistant professor Ileana Mauldin, who focuses on immunotherapy, ways of training the body’s immune cells to fight cancer. Mauldin embraced this work as a post-doc, working as a Rebecca Clary Harris, MD Memorial Fellow in the lab of Craig Slingluff (Col ’80, Med ’84), a surgeon, researcher, and UVA professor. The fellowship honors Dr. Rebecca Clary Harris, who was also a cancer researcher and colleague of Dr. Slingluff’s.

Arming the Immune System

UVA is a national leader in cancer immunotherapy—pursuing both drug-based and cell-based approaches to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer. Recently, Drs. Larry Lum and Trey Lee joined the faculty to broaden the scope of this research with alternative approaches to reprogramming immune cells. Their work complements the longstanding drug-based research in the Slingluff lab, where Mauldin works to improve immune cell (T cell) infiltration of tumors. It’s like training T cells to be microscopic super heroes. Once they infiltrate the tumor, the cells can kill and clear tumor cells. “What’s fascinating is that you can train your immune cells to do almost anything—fight bacteria, viruses, and cancer,” she said.

Every battle requires a strategy, and the strategy behind Mauldin’s research is vaccinating patients to induce T-cell responses and then providing immune therapies—which can promote tumor clearance and improve patient survival. Once an initial immune response is established, specialized killer T cells should be able to recognize and destroy tumor cells in vaccinated patients.

On a typical day, Mauldin conducts experiments, analyzes the data, makes adjustments, and repeats the process. She’s using a state-of-the-art system that employs a seven-color staining technique to help visualize and identify biomarkers in tumors. These colorful markers may hold the key to improving immune cell presence in tumors lacking beneficial cancer-killing immune cells. They may also help identify which therapies work best for certain types of tumors.

From Student to Valued Faculty Member

Mauldin earned her Ph.D. from UVA’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in 2012, and, thanks to the Clary Harris Fellowship, has worked in Slingluff’s lab, the UVA Cancer Center’s Human Immune Therapy Center (HITC), since 2014. Clary Harris Fellowship funding helps to foster interest and build research strengths in UVA post docs, encouraging the most talented individuals to stay on at UVA to pursue their work. It supports both clinical and translational research fellowships for graduate students or fellows in the Center.

Dr. Harris’s enthusiasm for providing excellence in clinical care and her passion for conducting innovative research are well known to Mauldin. “I was fortunate to meet her family. We presented them with a binder of our research papers.” This work included 17 papers—all published by researchers who have been supported by the Rebecca Clary Harris Fellowship.

Dr. Harris’s spirit of inquiry and provision of excellent care is carried on in Mauldin’s work.

“Right now we’re working on developing a better melanoma vaccine and testing ways to improve immune responses,” Mauldin said. “Any Immunologist’s ultimate hope, of course, is to produce a vaccine for everything.”

For Mauldin, one of the best things about working at the center is the opportunity to test research discoveries directly in clinical trials. “You can really impact patients’ lives dramatically—sometimes immediately,” she said.