This past October, Kellie Smith, Ph.D., was granted the American Lung Association’s first-ever Pierre Massion Lung Cancer Discovery Award for receiving the top score on her research application for this award. The honor is especially meaningful to Dr. Smith, assistant professor in the department of oncology at the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy and Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University, as a female researcher who until recently led a lab of 100% women. “I’m so encouraged by the increase of females pursuing science-related fields,” she enthusiastically noted.

Dr. Smith is currently studying immune responses in early-stage non-small cell lung cancer. The hope is that understanding anti-tumor immunity early in the disease can help us develop clinical biomarkers and new immunotherapies to prevent a relapse and extend patients’ lives.

Interestingly, lung cancer was not her initial focus. “I wanted to study HIV and during grad school, I looked for labs that worked on HIV,” Dr. Smith continued. “It just so happened that the lab I ended up in was working on immunotherapy for HIV and I became immersed in the realm of immunology.”

She had sought out a postdoctoral fellowship in an HIV lab. When she mentioned to a friend that she and her husband wanted to return to Baltimore, where she grew up, the friend suggested she get in touch with a renowned oncologist who serves as director of the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Johns Hopkins. “He was looking for a postdoctoral fellow who could do with lung cancer what I had been doing with HIV,” she said. “I stayed because I loved the research.”

Preventing Lung Cancer Recurrence

The focus of Dr. Smith’s work is finding a way to prevent or delay relapses in patients with early-stage non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). More than 1.8 million people worldwide are diagnosed with NSCLC every year. Dr. Smith is specifically studying the body’s immune response that leads to a patient’s prolonged disease-free survival or a relapse.

Immunotherapy for cancer, sometimes called immuno-oncology, is a type of medicine that treats cancer using the body’s own immune system. Immunotherapy drugs for lung cancer help the body recognize the cancer as foreign and harmful so the body can fight it.

Clinical trials are currently studying the impact of immunotherapy given before lung cancer surgery to shrink the tumor before or after surgery on disease-free survival. Unfortunately, even with these treatments many patients experience disease recurrence. Immunotherapy, after all, is typically given to patients with late-stage lung cancer that has less chance of survival.

With the Lung Association grant, Dr. Smith will find a patient’s T cells in circulating blood that recognize proteins produced by cancerous mutations and create a unique molecular ‘bar code’ of these cells. She furthered, “We then go into the transcriptomic data from the actual tumor and look for anti-tumor immune responses to see how the immune cells function inside the tumor. We will be able to identify markers of immune system dysfunction, which will help determine whether certain markers are associated with relapse.”

Once her lab establishes this, the next step is to develop treatments to block the pathway of these markers. “Understanding immune factors that promote or prevent relapse is crucial for developing new therapies that delay or prevent relapse in this patient population,” Dr. Smith added.

Larger Impact

Data generated from the project can be mined for years to come. Detailed Dr. Smith, “My lab will be able to analyze these data in many ways to test many hypotheses and will make the data available to the research community as a whole, so other people can answer their questions they may have,” she said. “This grant will have many benefits and lead to publications.”

The award is especially meaningful to Dr. Smith as a lung cancer researcher because of Dr. Massion’s influence on the field. “His work on early detection of lung cancer impacted the research community in a huge way,” explained Dr. Smith. “The earlier cancer is detected in patients the less likely they are to metastasize and ultimately die. All the work we’ve done increasing survival of lung cancer patients is due in part to his body of work as a whole. Dr. Massion’s legacy is remarkable. Not only was he a great researcher, but he was also a great partner to patients,” Dr. Smith concluded.

The Lung Association is proud to support and fund many female scientists, both in our Awards & Grants Program and Airways Clinical Research Centers Network. To learn more about our researchers, visit: Lung.org/research-team.

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