A big welcome to Division of Blood & Marrow Transplantation and Cellular Therapy's new faculty member Melody Smith, MD, MS. During Black History and Cancer Prevention Month, we sat down with Dr. Smith to learn more.
Please let us know about the exciting research you are conducting in your new lab.
I am a physician-scientist, and my research focuses on cellular therapy strategies that harness the immune system to treat cancer. In the clinic, I treat patients with blood cancers who receive bone marrow transplants or a cell therapy called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells. Currently, CAR T cells are collected from a patient and engineered to target tumor on a per-patient basis. CAR T cells have resulted in improved outcomes in patients with blood cancers. However, patients may still experience disease recurrence or they may develop toxicities related to the CAR T cells.
In the lab, I investigate the biology of CAR T cells to address some of these limitations of the therapy. Specifically, I investigate strategies to improve the efficacy and safety of this therapy (1) by investigating donor CAR T cells in mouse models of bone marrow transplant and (2) by assessing the impact of the intestinal microbiome on CAR T cell response.
Can you let us know a little bit about your background and why you were drawn to a career in cancer?
I am originally from East Texas, and I am one of seven children. My parents are both educators, and they encouraged me and my siblings to pursue vocations that we were passionate about and where we could make a difference. As a child, I have vivid memories of close family friends being diagnosed with cancer. In my mind, it seemed as though shortly thereafter they would pass away. These personal experiences combined with learning about how cancer developed in science classes drew me to the field. As an undergraduate, I sought out opportunities to volunteer for cancer-related causes. Ultimately, the summer after I graduated from college, a close family friend was sick with pancreatic cancer. By that time, he was at an inpatient Hospice facility, and my parents asked my sister and me to spend time with him to help provide reprieve for his wife. When he learned that I was interested in becoming an oncologist, he told me “Patients need an oncologist who has empathy for them”. My experience caring for him in his last days encouraged me to not only be an empathetic healthcare provider but also to investigate strategies to diminish the suffering and lengthen the days of cancer patients.
How does your clinical practice inspire your cancer research?
Witnessing the suffering of patients with cancer is one of the most difficult aspects of my job. Yet, it challenges me to pursue innovations in the lab that may ease their suffering and prolong their lives.
February is both Cancer Prevention and Black History Month. How do social inequities impact cancer prevention, and how can we improve outcomes for African Americans and underserved communities?
Underrepresented minorities, including African Americans, frequently experience greater risk factors for various cancers, including environmental exposures, family history, dietary factors and decreased access to preventative care. Although broad-based policy changes are needed to ameliorate these risks, basic science and clinical research can play a critical role in improving the quality of life for cancer patients from these communities. Since cancer often disparately impacts underrepresented minorities, advances in basic and clinical research have the potential to afford increased benefits to these populations. Hence, investigators and clinicians have the unique challenge and opportunity to ensure that cancers impacting minority populations are investigated at the basic science level, that clinical studies recruit minority patients, and that novel treatments are accessible and affordable.
Tell us a fun fact about yourself.
I played the oboe in middle and high school - over 20 years ago. During the pandemic, I decided to start playing again. I have been shocked by how much I remember and also how much I enjoy playing again.
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