Vaibhav Agrawal says he once had a reading comprehension problem — but now the only word he has difficulty comprehending is “can’t.”
He just finished his fifth summer in the Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy, a program enabling high school and college students to work in City of Hope research labs. Agrawal soon will start medical school at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in North Chicago.
Agrawal already knows a lot about medicine. At age 4, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and a possibly unrelated hearing loss. “What may seem adversity to some can be a challenge for others,” he said. “Looking back, I never felt that leukemia was an adversity. It was a turbulent time in my life, but I look at it as a blessing in disguise.”
He underwent chemotherapy at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles for several years, and his cancer has been in remission for more than a decade. He wears a discreet hearing aid for his hearing loss.
Agrawal makes his experience sound easy: He simply refused defeat. “When I got hearing aids, I had difficulty with a reading comprehension test,” he explained. “My audiologist told me that few kids with my degree of hearing loss can learn to articulate well, so I sat down and started reading a vocabulary book. I came back and scored in the 99th percentile.”
After five minutes’ conversation it is obvious why his high school class voted Agrawal most likely to succeed. ABC News also featured him in one of its “Cool Kids” segments, and Childrens Hospital awarded him a scholarship for childhood cancer survivors.
Careerwise, Agrawal started thinking big as a Glendora High School student. “I saw Dr. Steven Rosenberg at the NIH [National Institutes of Health] on TV talking about using T-cells to kill melanoma, and I got intrigued by that idea,” he said. Rosenberg pioneered development of immunotherapy, which exploits the capacity of a patient’s own immune cells to attack tumors.
Agrawal applied to City of Hope’s summer student program before his senior year and worked first with Jack Shively, Ph.D., chair of the Division of Immunology, and then with Chih-Pin Liu, Ph.D., associate professor in immunology.
Now he has completed his third straight summer in the lab of Michael C. Jensen, M.D., associate chair of the Division of Cancer Immunotherapeutics & Tumor Immunology, where he has investigated tumor targeting and projects related to cancer stem cells.
“Vaibhav is a rising star,” said Jensen. “He is bright, scientifically inquisitive and hardworking. He began learning the basics of molecular biology, and now he is leading his own project aimed at eliminating HER2-positive tumor targets using redirected cytotoxic T-lymphocytes. He will be missed in future summers, but we look forward to Vaibhav becoming a valued colleague.”
This spring, Agrawal earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular biochemistry and biophysics from Illinois Institute of Technology. Now he hopes to train as a pediatric oncologist.
Medical school will keep him occupied for four years, but City of Hope might not have seen the last of him. “I would love to come back and work in the new immunotherapy building,” he said, referring to the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for Cancer Immunotherapeutics and Tumor Immunology. “Coming back would be making a full circle.”