Vanessa Jonsson, Ph.D.
What’s an engineer who worked in aerospace and robotics doing at City of Hope? Exploring what may be the final frontier of cancer research.
Vanessa Jonsson, Ph.D., has solved tough problems for the Aquarius Mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and helped design autonomous cars for the Defense Department’s DARPA program. But she also had an avid interest in medicine, and received her doctorate in engineering with a specialization in biology. Armed with this unique set of skills, she has already made valuable contributions to medical research at Caltech and UC San Francisco.
“My real passion was always to work on cancer,” she said. “Then I had this wonderful opportunity to work on immunotherapies at City of Hope.”
Outsmarting the Tumor
Jonsson is now an assistant research professor and group leader in computational immuno-oncology at Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. Her team focuses on chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy
, an immunotherapy that uses a patient’s own T cells — the cells in our bloodstream that ward off disease — to fight cancer.
With this exciting new technology, T cells are extracted from the patient and engineered to destroy a tumor by recognizing its antigen — a protein that stimulates an immune response. The T cells are then multiplied in the lab and transfused back into the patient.
The advantages of CAR T over traditional therapies are impressive. The CAR T cells attack only the tumor, not healthy tissue, and can have a long lifespan in the bloodstream. What’s more, in addition to targeting specific antigens, CAR T therapy may also be able to boost the way the rest of a patient’s immune system responds to cancer.
If you can simultaneously target cancer cells and amplify a patient's own immune response, you have a very powerful therapy. That’s the hope with CAR T cell therapy.”
There is, however, more to be learned about CAR T therapy. While it appears to be quite effective for some blood cancers, with solid tumors like brain, breast, lung and colon cancers, the issue is more complicated, and tumors can still return.
Jonsson explained the crux of the problem: “The tumor is ‘smart’ enough to evolve away from these therapies,” she said. For example, it can express new antigens that are different from those the CAR T cells were engineered to attack, or hide itself from the immune system.
Her job is to outsmart the tumor, and she comes well prepared for the fight.
the mathematics of cancer
Using such tools as computational analysis and mathematical modeling, Jonsson examines the complex interactions between the tumor, the patient’s immune system and the therapy to learn just how the tumor evades the immune response.
We are studying the ways in which tumors can become resistant to immunotherapy and then, using engineering techniques, optimize the way we treat patients effectively by combining different therapies” she said.
She recently conceived of and developed an algorithm to fight tumor regrowth in the context of lung cancer
— and the results look promising.
“We found that combinations of two targeted therapies couldn’t do the trick. So we designed a switching strategy — starting off with one targeted drug combination, and after some time switching to another to box in the evolution of the tumor.” she said.
In the laboratory her algorithm succeeded in predicting the optimal strategies for outsmarting lung cancer tumors in vitro
. The findings were published in Scientific Reports last
the thrill of discovery
Jonsson’s combination of engineering and medical research skills reflects two of her lifelong passions. As a kid, she’d always been interested in math and science, but when she was 16, she volunteered at a private hospital. There she had a chance to observe meetings in which physicians brainstormed ways to better treat patients with complicated cases.
“That was the part that really fascinated me. Getting to the bottom of a medical mystery,” she said.
It’s this process of discovery and problem-solving that drives her work. It’s also what she finds most exciting about her new position at City of Hope.
“The great thing about City of Hope is that there's such a tight relationship between the clinical and research side. As a researcher, I can attend clinical meetings, discuss research results with clinicians and other scientists, and be in a place where I can eventually see my research affect patients in a positive way,” she said. “It’s an exciting opportunity to be part of this highly collaborative, multidisciplinary team”
But there’s more to this scientist than algorithms and analysis. Jonsson also loves the arts. She’s a trained violinist who once played professionally, and when she’s not at work, you might find her taking photos
on the streets of Los Angeles — downtown, the Arts District, Olvera Street. “I’m really interested in capturing personal stories through photography,” she said.