Rebecca Leary works at the forefront of a transformational field of biopharmaceutical research known as precision medicine, pursuing technologies that characterize cancer cells and their relationship with the body’s own immune system. She earned her Ph.D. and completed post-doctoral research at John Hopkins University’s Ludwig Center for Cancer Genetics and Therapeutics. Since 2013, she has been a member of Novartis’ Next Generation Diagnostics team.
The immune system is responsible for ridding the body of intruders, including harmful bacteria or viruses, as well as cancer cells that arise from our own bodies. A healthy person’s immune system is efficient at identifying and eliminating infections, however, cancer cells are often able to evade detection and grow unencumbered.
Leary’s area of research seeks to better understand the relationship between the immune system and tumors. The current difficulty lies in the fact that there is not “one type of immune cell” nor is there “one type of cancer cell.” Cancer is an incredibly complex disease, and Leary and her team are working to understand why immunotherapies have been highly effective in some areas, but not in others.
The Driving Force
In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first CAR-T therapy, a type of immunotherapy, for the treatment of certain types of leukemia in younger patients. Dr. Leary says this is indicative of the rapid rate at which science is supporting better patient outcomes.
“This new area of scientific research in cancer is incredibly exciting as a scientist, but its impact on public health hasn’t yet been fully realized,” she says. “We are researching ways to get the right therapies to the right patients and technologies for earlier cancer detection. The science is incredibly exciting, and there are a bunch of us working really, really hard to make sure that it has an impact on patient lives.”
Challenges, Chance and Looking Forward
Immunotherapies are highly effective for some patients, but many other cancer patients are not able to benefit from existing therapies. Leary would like to see a future in which similar therapies are available to all cancer patients.
“Our team at Novartis is really lucky because we’ve been given this tremendous opportunity to explore personalized medicine for patients with cancer,” she says. “We have the opportunity to discover the next wave of drugs that could impact the lives of patients.”
When looking ahead, Leary says that collaboration will drive continued innovation.
“Over the past few years, we’ve seen innovation take place at the intersection of a variety of different disciplines,” she says. “For example, genomics has impacted oncology, and now we’re seeing the fields of immunology and oncology coming together. We’ll only see this trend continue as genome-editing technologies and cell-based therapies continue to converge with basic scientific research to deliver new treatments to patients.”