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Expanding the Caspar Wistar Fellows Program

September 3, 2021

The Caspar Wistar Fellowship is a model for recruiting the best and brightest junior scientists to Wistar where they can build scientific networks and advance their unique independent research programs.

Two years ago philanthropists Doug and Peggy Briggs established the Caspar Wistar Fellowship to attract the most talented junior scientists from across the nation and beyond, and jumpstart their scientific careers. Put at the center of a collaborative nexus of bold and distinguished scientists working in cancer and infectious disease research at Wistar, What can they achieve?

“If we can find the best and brightest junior scientists, I believe we can move their careers along much faster,” said Doug. “They have the potential, and we are giving them a leg up and hopefully more responsibility than even they think they are ready for.”

These supremely driven and curious scientists have a lot on their shoulders, but have the focus, education and courage to become our next generation of scientific leaders.

Dr. Daniel Claiborne, Wistar’s newest Caspar Wistar Fellow, joins the Fellowship from the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard where he is trying to better understand T cells and CAR T cells for the treatment of HIV. CAR T cells, called chimeric antigen receptor T cells, are patient-derived T cells that have been engineered to target and destroy a specific antigen on the surface of a cancer cell. They are considered “super charged” immune cells that act like a living drug, latching onto a tumor cell to terminate it. CAR T cells have been developed as an immunotherapy for cancer, but Dr. Claiborne wants to explore their potential against HIV.

“This is a huge opportunity to start my own lab so there is some trepidation, but it’s what I’ve been working towards for 13 years, so I’m also very motivated as well,” says Dr. Claiborne. “The recent publications I worked on were not the end, but the beginning in our effort to understand the hurdles in repurposing CAR T cells for HIV. We learned a lot about what these cells can and cannot do. The big question in the field is, ‘Why do CAR Ts stop working?’ It’s an open-ended question and a ton of research has already been done.”

Dr. Claiborne brings an entirely different perspective to CAR T research that will enhance our basic understanding of CAR T cells and help inform their use in oncology and immunotherapy.

“The thing we do differently is use a humanized mouse model that carries a functional human immune system,” said Dr. Claiborne. “This is a malleable small animal model with actual human cells and T cells so we can learn more about what makes our CAR T therapies fail. And that’s largely translatable to more than just HIV infection. It informs basic T cell biology and illuminates what makes T cells do their job or not in many chronic disease states. The ability to do that in a small animal model with a human immune system is powerful and one step closer to the question we all think is important: What causes T cells to lose their function.”

Dr. Ami Patel became Wistar’s second Caspar Wistar Fellow in 2020 and has lived a pretty incredible year with lots of big changes. Since the start of the pandemic, Dr. Patel has been a key leader in the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine and immunotherapy efforts at the Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center.

“In September, I became a Caspar Wistar Fellow and then a week later, I went on maternity leave,” said Dr. Patel. “I truly appreciate this opportunity and it’s exciting to pursue my own independent research. I have multiple new experiments in which to design and develop new ideas. And I’m at the early stages building my lab and getting it up and running.”

Dr. Patel was recruited to the program after shining in the lab of Wistar’s Dr. David Weiner, first as a postdoctoral fellow and associate staff scientist. She was appointed as research assistant professor in 2019.

“As a Caspar Wistar Fellow, my new independent research program is focused on understanding the cellular and immune mechanisms associated with vaccine and immunotherapy delivery and using this information to improve the next generation of vaccines against emerging pathogens that could be tomorrow’s next major outbreaks. This is a great opportunity to explore new strategies,” she says.

As she is establishing her research program, Dr. Patel is hiring her own team to manage projects that run the gamut of emerging pathogens.

“Now is the time to put my new ideas to the test and drill down on key independent experiments that will lay the foundation for my research,” Dr. Patel added.

For Dr. Rahul Shinde, Wistar’s inaugural Caspar Wistar Fellow, this stage of independence has brought a myriad of research collaborations. His work focuses on pancreatic cancer and how cancer hijacks immune cells called macrophages, which normally stimulate the immune system and destroy cancer and pathogen invaders. Dr. Shinde is trying to elucidate when and how macrophages shift their function from fighting cancer to doing cancer cells’ bidding in the tumor microenvironment. He is also interested in the gut microbiome and its connection with modulating tumor progression.

“It has been great at Wistar, and such a positive feeling setting up my lab and working to publish,” said Dr. Shinde. “I feel lucky to collaborate with Wistar principal investigators across research fields including autoimmune diseases such as lupus. I’m also exploring pancreatic cancer’s tumor microenvironment that fosters cancer growth and therapy resistance. I’ve been part of several projects making interesting observations.”

Doug Briggs believes giving strong, sharp-minded scientists a platform to launch their careers is most important.

“Bringing these early-career, star scientists along faster in their careers is helping push the biomedical research dial forward. There are big up sides — for us all — with more and faster success in science,” says Doug.

“For Doug and Peggy Briggs to stand up and create this opportunity is very motivating, especially for scientists who do high-risk and out-of-the-box research,” said Dr. Claiborne. “It’s a huge deal. Pursue your ideas and see where they take you.”

The Caspar Wistar Fellowship will continue to boost the potential in early-career scientists it brings to Wistar. With each new Fellow who calls Wistar home, Doug and Peggy’s straightforward belief becomes a more powerful engine for expanding research and pushing the Institute to succeed.

Stay tuned for the fourth Caspar Wistar Fellow to be recruited very soon!