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Postdoc Tessa Simone explores role of immune cells in cancer

By Megan Bard and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

October 24, 2018

The Women in Science video series on UMassMedNow highlights the many areas of research conducted by women at UMass Medical School.

Tessa Simone, PhD, a postdoc in the lab of Michael R. Green, MD, PhD, is focused on identifying ways to teach the immune system to attack cancerous tumors without harming healthy tissue.

Dr. Simone works closely with colleagues in the lab of Dr. Green, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, the Lambi and Sarah Adams Chair in Genetic Research, chair and professor of molecular, cell & cancer biology, director of the UMass Medical School Cancer Center and co-director of the Li Weibo Institute for Rare Diseases Research.

“The immune system should recognize cancer as foreign in the same way is does viruses and bacteria,” Simone said. “One way in which it goes wrong is the expression of a protein PD-L1 on the surface of tumor cells that acts as a stop sign to immune cells when it binds to another protein, PD-1, on the surface of immune cells. Recently, the Food and Drug Association has approved several drugs that inhibit PD-L1 and PD-1 that allows for immune cells to attack tumors for the treatment of several cancers.”

Simone said the drugs have been widely successful in fighting cancers such as triple-negative breast cancer, melanoma and small cell lung cancer that don’t respond to traditional chemo-therapeutics. However, the drugs have one major unwanted side effect: autoimmunity.

“The drugs are not intended for long-term use because they ramp up the immune system too well. When this happens, patients develop autoimmunity and the immune system attacks normal, healthy tissue,” she said.

Simone and her colleagues are working to identify the genes that cause PD-L1 to be expressed on cancer. If successful, they could potentially find drugs to inhibit these genes, and thus allow the immune system to attack tumors but spare normal tissue.

“I’m confident that the work we’re doing and the people we’re collaborating with means that this is feasible,” Simone said. She is working with Michael A. Brehm, PhD, associate professor of molecular medicine .

Last year, Simone was named a postdoctoral fellow of the American Cancer Society, an honor that came with a three-year, $163,500 award. The fellowship is now known as The FivePoint Credit Union Hope to Cure Grant and supported by the FivePoint Credit Union in Texas.

“It’s an extraordinary honor. The fellowship has provided me with a fantastic resource for my research,” she said.

Simone said her goal is to become a principal investigator and oversee her own lab.

“I love the idea of doing my own research. I love the idea of helping students go through graduate school, become postdocs and get their career started. I want to continue the great circle that is scientific research. The key isn’t only what you do, but what you pass on to the next generation of scientists,” she said.

She said she looks forward to mentoring women in science and medicine.

“Forget the stigma, forget the moments that you think you can’t do it and that there is a gender gap, and rise above it. Remain focused on your success, otherwise it will only hold you back,” she said.

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