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Stalking a Stealthy Cancer

10 months ago / by Pratika Yashaswi

Anushka Dongre studies just how a few errant cells can block the immune system from attacking a tumor

Dr. Anushka Dongre studies cancer. The researcher, who born and raised in Mumbai, India, chased her love for microbiology all the way through college and graduate school there before finally earning a PhD from the University of Massachusettes-Amherst where she studied communication between certain immune cells. She is now assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at Cornell University, and an adjunct professor in the university’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

Dongre studies treatment-resistant breast cancer cells and ways to make them more responsive to immunotherapy. While a little difficult for a lay audience to understand, her cutting-edge work is important in cancer biology.

SEEMA chatted with Dongre about her work, her life and also her strong belief in the value of diversity in science.

I read on your profile that “although immune checkpoint blockade therapy has revolutionized cancer treatment, a subset of tumors, such as those of the breast, are still largely unresponsive.” Why is that? What makes breast cancer particularly difficult to treat?

While a small subset of breast cancer patients do, in fact, derive some benefit from immune checkpoint blockade therapies, the vast majority are still unresponsive. The underlying reasons for this unresponsiveness are not well defined, and this is an active area of investigation. One factor that can drive resistance to therapy is the residence of breast cancer cells in different phenotypic states. Mesenchymal-like breast cancer cells are often resistant to therapeutic treatment regimens, including immunotherapies, relative to their more-epithelial counterparts.

You’ve made some interesting discoveries with respect to breast tumors, and you’re currently researching it. Could you share a little bit about that for a lay audience?

My lab is centered on understanding how different types of breast cancer cells – termed as “epithelial,” which have a cobble-stone appearance, or “mesenchymal,” which are spindle-shaped, interact with the immune system. In mouse models of epithelial or mesenchymal breast cancers, we have observed that only more-mesenchymal tumors are resistant to a specific type of immunotherapy relative to their more-epithelial counterparts. Moreover, a small fraction of mesenchymal cells in a breast tumor are sufficient to shield the entire tumor from the immune system. This is of particular importance as human breast tumors can harbor minority populations of more-mesenchymal cells. Moreover, we have also identified strategies to sensitize these more-mesenchymal breast tumors cells to immunotherapy by perturbing the expression of certain paracrine factors.

The Dongre Lab has been very vocal about diversity and inclusion. From your own experience as an Indian woman in science, and the experience of some of your minority colleagues, what are some lesser-known challenges you face in a traditionally male-dominated field?

As a faculty member, it is not only my view but my responsibility to promote and foster an inclusive learning environment. We value diversity and view it as a source of creativity and innovative ideas, which lay the foundation for scientific excellence. In terms of challenges, being a woman in science and, more importantly, a mother in science, requires one to develop an essential set of management and organizational skills that can help juggle both these responsibilities efficiently. Seeking supportive mentors and a collaborative work environment are essential for overcoming challenges.

Tell us about the non-scientist part of yourself. What do you like doing in your free time? What are some of the other interests you have?

I enjoy painting as a hobby, although I don’t get to indulge in it as much these days. I spend all of my free time with my five-year old son and husband. We love being outdoors and spend our free time exploring different hiking trails in the Finger Lakes region, in New York, where we reside.

What would be your advice to parents of young girls interested in science, specifically, biology? What’s the best way to encourage young girls in this field?

Early exposure to STEM education, including biology, is essential to increasing the representation of women in these fields. I think it is imperative to follow your passion and not be afraid to explore opportunities for pursuing scientific research.