September 13, 2016 | by Jay Fernandez
One of the great benefits of medical breakthroughs is their potential for drawing great new curious minds to the field of medical science.
The Hope Experiment, City of Hope’s upcoming new educational outreach program, hopes to accelerate that process and inspire budding young scientists by sharing its expertise in biomedical research and cancer-treating innovations with students and the public.
Some of City of Hope’s most promising and dedicated staff will also be at the event on Wednesday, Sept. 14, in Santa Monica, California. Those researchers include John P. Murad, a third-year graduate student working in the lab of Stephen J. Forman, M.D., a pioneer of bone marrow and stem cell transplants and the Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation at City of Hope.
A Southern California native, Murad received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Cal Poly Pomona in 2009. He then obtained a master’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences from Western University of Health Sciences in 2012 and is now working on a doctorate in biological sciences with an emphasis on cancer immunology and immune-based therapeutics.
In particular, Murad is fascinated by the potential of CAR T cell therapy to combat cancer with fewer adverse effects than chemotherapy and with higher success rates. CAR T cell therapy involves genetically engineering cells from a patient’s immune system called “T cells.” These T cells are engineered to express a surface protein called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) unique to specific cancer-cell types. Once modified, these CAR T immune cells are capable of recognizing and attacking cancer cells, and doctors can then inject them directly into the tumor site or through the blood.
CAR T immunotherapy is most understood in the context of blood cancers. In one study, patients with recurring acute lymphoblastic leukemia were cured with CAR T therapy after standard treatments showed no effect. At City of Hope, researchers are now experimenting with its use against solid cancers such as advanced brain tumors and prostate cancers.
It’s an outpatient treatment with minimal side effects typical of cancer treatment. But producing CAR T cells requires a lot of resources (such as their manufacturing and testing) that make it difficult to generate on a large scale, especially since each therapy must be tailored to the individual patient. Scientists are now working on finding ways to expand its application.
With the Hope Experiment right around the corner, Murad spoke with City of Hope about his passion for scientific research, the impact early lab access had on his development and the keys to sculpting the right career path in medicine.
What inspired you to move toward science, medicine and research? Was there a moment in particular that really clicked for you and most pushed you in that direction?
In a high school that was known predominantly for technology and computer science, I found myself most intrigued by anatomy, physiology and chemistry courses. I wanted to know how the body worked, how cells worked, how drugs worked. That was the first time I knew I wanted to move towards biological sciences. At Cal Poly Pomona, I was fortunate to have been involved in undergraduate research during my senior year. This opportunity allowed me to experience research in the lab, where I was drawn to developing assays, or methods to solve problems, and got a better understanding of science. This research opportunity motivated me to get my master’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences with emphasis on pharmacology research.
Why did you join City of Hope?
I joined City of Hope initially as a research associate after I completed a master’s degree. At the time, I knew City of Hope did a lot of research, and I wanted to be involved in that higher level of work. I learned of the graduate school as a research associate and was encouraged by staff scientists, advisers and family to apply for graduate school to move myself to the next level of scientific development and training.
What keeps you engaged and motivated as a researcher?
I am motivated to try to provide novel research findings in my field that may improve therapeutic options in the clinic. I am fascinated by building new model systems and assays to investigate cancer cell/CAR T cell interactions. I know making a clinical impact as a graduate student is a very lofty goal. But I believe City of Hope offers a unique opportunity not only to do great research but also to potentially get that work into our clinics. As a researcher, you are given opportunities to share discoveries with the public, and one day that work may provide future researchers with the starting point to make the next big clinical breakthrough.
What most attracted you to CAR T cells, and why are they important?
I was most attracted to CAR T cells not only for their ability to provide somewhat personalized cancer therapies, but also for their ability to provide a unique tool in understanding how cancers modify their microenvironment to evade immune responses. CAR T cells have been most successful in hematological malignancies, or liquid cancers, but we are only in the initial stages of developing CARs to fight against solid cancers, such as those in the brain, breast, prostate and ovary. I wanted to study and develop methods to improve the cancer microenvironment such that these novel CAR T cells will have greater activity against solid cancers.
What new research or potential breakthroughs in CAR T cells are you most excited about?
I'm most excited about our solid tumor CAR T cell development program. We're actively building models to try and mimic solid cancers so that our CAR T cells can adapt and survive as they encounter cancer cells. Furthermore, we are utilizing CAR T cells to attack new targets on multiple cancer types that have not been looked at before.
What advice would you give to a high school or college student weighing medicine and research as a career path?
I would advise high school or college students interested in medicine or research to get volunteer/internship experiences in those fields. We have summer students who have no idea what real research is like and are either fascinated by the work that can be done or turned off by the thought of being in the lab every day. Those internship or volunteer experiences will mold what specific area of science, research or medicine you are interested in and guide you to the path you’ll enjoy the most.
Why do you think the Hope Experiment is useful?
The general public does not realize how much research goes on at City of Hope. Most people recognize the world-class cancer and diabetes care patients receive at our treatment centers, but those treatments are guided by the tireless efforts of our researchers, who provide rational approaches to cancer/diabetes treatment by better understanding the science behind it. Science is the basis for how we learn about, and become better at, treating patients with cancer and/or diabetes.
What outside interests do you have that are unrelated to your schooling and job?
Outside of my work and school obligations, I enjoy playing basketball, playing guitar and listening to music. When time permits, I love to spend time traveling with my wife.
For more information on CAR T cell therapy and City of Hope’s groundbreaking research into its potential for fighting cancer, visit The Hope Experiment, an educational pop-up event that will take place at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, Wednesday, Sept. 14, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hosted in partnership with Cal-HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America) and Emmy-nominated actress Mayim Bialik (“The Big Bang Theory”), who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, the event will showcase City of Hope’s commitment to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) through hands-on, interactive activities and the opportunity to speak with City of Hope scientists and students such as John Murad.