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In honor of our 30th anniversary, we’re catching up with former grant recipients to hear how their work has impacted kidney cancer care and research.

Dr. Pooja Ghatalia is a medical oncologist and researcher at Fox Chase Cancer Center and Assistant Professor in the Department of Hematology/Oncology at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She received the 2017 David A. Swanson MD, Research Scholar Award. We spoke with her about her research project – Characterization of tumor infiltrating immune cells and development of immune gene signature in localized clear cell (cc) renal cell carcinoma (RCC) – and what she’s been working on recently. 

What was the inspiration for your research project? 

The inspiration for the research project came in 2013 when immune cells that can infiltrate tumors and immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy in many malignancies had captured a lot of scientific interest. I initially began exploring immune infiltrates in localized kidney cancer tumors and quantified them with a pathologist. The initial research was conducted in the University of Alabama at Birmingham under the direction of my mentor Dr. Sonpavde. Given the interesting initial results, I decided to validate my findings in a second cohort of patients at Fox Chase Cancer Center when I moved to Philadelphia for my fellowship. 

What was the outcome of your research project and have there been further developments? 

First of all, I am extremely thankful for the funding that helped me complete my research project. The research helped me identify key immune cells conferring a good prognosis to patients with localized kidney cancer and the results were published in 2019. Since the completion of the research project, I am involved in using multiplex IHC* to evaluate immune infiltrates in metastatic kidney cancer patients – specifically those patients with an indolent disease course. 

How would you say your research project contributed to the field? 

With the development of novel immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy in kidney cancer treatment, there has been increased interest in understanding immune cells infiltrating the tumor and their interaction with the adjacent tumor microenvironment. This research has contributed to improving our understanding of immune infiltrates in localized kidney tumors to help understand treatment courses that could prevent tumor recurrence. 

What is most exciting or significant about your research? How would you explain this to a person with kidney cancer? 

I found that the presence of CD8+ T cells in the kidney cancer tumor are important to prevent tumor recurrence. 

Did this research project impact your approach to patient care? 

The results of this research project have helped me appreciate the design of perioperative immunotherapy-based trials. I am the [principal investigator] of an ongoing clinical trial at Fox Chase that involves delivery of perioperative immunotherapy to patients with kidney cancer with the hope of reducing the chance of tumor recurrence. 

What is your research focus now? 

My current research focuses on understanding epigenetic pathways that lead to resistance to immunotherapy in patients with metastatic kidney cancer. 

*Multiplex immunohistochemistry (IHC) is a process that helps identify multiple types of proteins in a single tissue sample. 

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