Optimizing T cells in the fight against cancer

Fiona He HeadshotT cells are immune cells that play a vital role in keeping the body healthy. But when T cells become dysfunctional, it can increase susceptibility to cancer and other chronic diseases. 

Support from Minnesota Masonic Charities is helping Fiona He, M.D., part of the U’s hematology, oncology, and transplantation faculty to better understand how T cell function and aging are impacted by chemotherapy and other targeted cancer therapies. 

  • T cell aging: He’s team is investigating whether T cell aging is a side effect of multi-agent chemotherapy used in people with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. So far, they have found that the impact of chemotherapy on T cell biomarkers associated with aging varies a lot from person to person. They are now looking to see if there is a correlation between these biomarkers and side effects in individuals who receive a bone marrow transplant after chemotherapy. They are also collaborating with other Masonic Cancer Center researchers and LifeTime Fitness to explore whether a personalized strength training program impacts T cell aging biomarkers in cancer survivors.
  • T cell exhaustion: In addition to studying T cell aging, He’s team is conducting research on another type of T cell dysfunction called T cell exhaustion. They are leading a clinical trial on whether a combination of immunotherapy drugs can reverse T cell exhaustion, and stimulate the immune system to fight cancer in people with acute myeloid leukemia. 

While He is encouraged by the results of her team’s cancer research, she is also excited about the potential of their work to reach patients with a wide range of conditions. The University is the perfect place for this to happen, she says. “The U’s Institute on the Biology of Aging and Metabolism has developed a lab that will focus on identifying aging cells in patient blood samples,” she explains. “Our goal is to examine biomarkers of aging in clinical trials spanning ALL areas of medicine to look at the impact of novel agents on aging cells.” 

He is grateful for the role of Masonic support in getting research such as this off the ground:

“Support from Minnesota Masonic Charities is critical. As a young researcher building my research program, having resources to test my hypotheses and obtain preliminary data is very important to be competitive for larger grants. I greatly appreciate the support and hope to learn more about how chemotherapy affects the immune system in leukemia.” 


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