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Searching for A Higher Gear in the Fight Against Brain Cancer

November 30, 2021

Jessica Waibl Polania (left) and Selena Lorrey examining a sign with an image of a brain
Jessica Waibl Polania (left) and Selena Lorrey are looking for ways to use the body's own immune system to target and treat glioblastoma. (Photo illustration)

By Hailey Stiehl

In her spare time, you can find Selena Lorrey teaching cycling classes at a local studio in Durham. With some upbeat music guiding the way, Lorrey and her students spend the class pushing their bikes into a higher gear.

After hopping off the bike, Lorrey makes her way over to campus, where she and fellow Ph.D. student Jessica Waibl Polania are trying to figure out how to kick the immune system into a higher gear to fight brain cancer.

The brain is arguably the most complex part of the human body. Scientists have many unanswered questions about how this organ works. Brain cancers—and their treatment—are no less of a challenge.

Lorrey and Waibl Polania, both fourth-year Ph.D. candidates and recipients of the 2021-2022 Paul and Lauren Ghaffari Graduate Fellowship, are working to discover ways to successfully target and treat aggressive brain cancers with the power of the immune system. They are conducting their research in Peter Fecci’s lab as part of the Duke Brain Tumor Immunotherapy Program.

Lorrey and Waibl Polania are focused on a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma (GBM).  Only five percent of GBM patients are alive five years after their diagnosis, even with treatments like surgery to remove the tumor, chemotherapy and radiation.

Many other cancers benefit from the use of immunotherapy, a type of treatment that harnesses the power of the immune system to fight cancer by directing immune cells to identify and attack tumor cells.  Immunotherapy has not been effective for GBM patients, who present unique challenges. GBM patients have suppressed immune systems even before they receive any treatment, meaning that although immunotherapy harnesses the power of the immune system, these patients are starting from behind with a weakened immune system.

Lorrey and Waibl Polania are working to figure out how GBM is able to suppress the immune system, and how to stop it.

“Before we can find ways to intervene, we need to understand what we’re up against,” Lorrey said. “Our goal is to generate more effective treatments for GBM patients.”

Their Paths to Duke

Selena Lorrey (left) and Jessica Waibl Polania
Selena Lorrey (left) and Jessica Waibl Polania are pursuing their Ph.D.s in Peter Fecci's lab.

Their desire to ultimately help patients sparked both Lorrey and Waibl Polania’s professional journeys and led them to the same lab at Duke.

As an undergraduate, Waibl Polania took several classes that focused on cancer genetics. She was stunned by the number of unanswered questions in the field of cancer research, and from that point onward, she knew she wanted to continue to investigate cancer treatments, specifically brain cancer.

“I found the biology of tumorigenesis and the immune system to be fascinating,” Waibl Polania said. “I was excited by the complexity of the immune system’s function in controlling cancerous cells and trying to understand why it sometimes fails.”

Lorrey, meanwhile, wanted to pursue a career where she could make a difference to cancer patients and their loved ones, and she recognized that her fascination with the immune system could help her make an impact.

During one of their experiences in the Fecci lab, Lorrey and Waibl Polania were invited to meet some of Fecci’s patients and attend brain surgery from inside the operating room. Both said the surgery was one of the most memorable experiences during their research thus far.

“By working with Dr. Fecci, I have had the opportunity to both observe a surgical resection, as well as meet some of his patients,” Waibl Polania said. “Being able to step back from the day-to-day of our benchwork reminds me of the bigger picture of why we do research.”

Similarly, Lorrey said that one of the things she appreciates about Dr. Fecci’s mentorship is that he wants everyone in his lab, from medical students to residents to Ph.D. students, to understand the clinical impact of their work. 

“My experiences in the operating room and in clinic were humbling opportunities to see some of what GBM patients go through, and these made me even more motivated to pursue my research and try to help patients,” Lorrey said.

What’s Next?

As the two look toward the future, Lorrey and Waibl Polania have diverging career paths, but a shared common goal to improve patients’ lives through medical research.

Lorrey plans to pursue a career as a medical science liaison in the field of immuno-oncology.  In this role, she would work closely with physicians treating cancer patients to provide them with scientific and clinical information relevant to these immunotherapies.

“I am excited about this career because it operates at the intersection of research and clinical medicine. I love the prospect of communicating important scientific and clinical findings and having thoughtful scientific discussions in a manner that benefits the care of cancer patients,” Lorrey said.

Waibl Polania hopes to continue researching barriers in the efficiency of immunotherapies, ultimately understanding how to overcome those barriers to help patients. Along her journey throughout graduate school and her research, Waibl Polania has learned that it’s important to celebrate the little wins.

“Graduate school is a roller coaster, so you have to be prepared for some highs and lows,” she said when asked what advice she would give to incoming graduate students, “but don’t take failed experiments too personally and try to stay positive!”