Cancer researcher’s goal is to make global impact, save generations to come

V Foundation grantee Debattama Sen, Ph.D., was featured on, discussing her research and the V Foundation.

This article was published on on June 21, 2023, written by Jennifer Southall and Debattama Sen, Ph.D., and fact checked by Mindy Valcarcel. The full article can be accessed HERE.

The V Foundation has awarded Debattama Sen, PhD, a $200,000 grant to explore strategies to regulate T-cell dysfunction in chronic viral infection and tumors in patients with cancer.

Sen, a cancer immunologist at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and Harvard Medical School, has focused a significant part of her research on diseases that primarily affect women, including breast and ovarian cancers.

“The fact that the V Foundation brings together a diverse group of scientists from different fields of cancer research into one space is huge,” Sen told Healio. “The foundation opens more spaces for people of color and women. It is so important to build and strengthen these communities in science.”

Sen spoke with Healio about her motivation to go into the biomedical and immunology fields, ongoing research efforts and advice for other women starting out in the field.

Healio: What led you to go into the biomedical and immunology fields?

Sen: It was really two things — my family and where I’m from. I am from Bangladesh and my dad is an economist and academic. Early on, I learned both the joys and also some of the pains of a research-based career. I remember being in my teens and helping copy edit his papers, so there’s a personal connection with academic writing from his career.

In terms of why immunology and biomedical science in particular, a major motivation has been my Bangladeshi background. The last internationally known natural infection of smallpox involved a girl from a village in Bangladesh, and that really highlights the lack of appropriate medical care and health care solutions in my country of origin. However, when we find the right solution, like the smallpox vaccine, it literally transforms people’s lives. So even though I live in the U.S. now, my identity as an immigrant reminds me that these innovations literally save lives. I want to do work that can make an impact globally, because we can save generations by doing so.

Healio: What has your experience been like as a woman and specifically a woman of color in the field?

Sen: There’s no doubt about it — there are nowhere near as many of us as there should be doing this work. We are underrepresented and there are historical disparities that only make it harder for women and people of color to be included. Sometimes it feels hard and overwhelming, but there’s a lot of people working to change this, and I feel very privileged to be here today as a demonstration of the impact that they have had. For me, I know I would not be here today without the mentors that I had who were able to look past some of the stereotypes and really see my potential. They helped give me the confidence to face the inevitable challenges of becoming a principal investigator.

Healio: Why is it important to bring more diversity into the field?

Sen: When we talk about diversity, specifically when it comes to biomedical and cancer research, we must think about it on two levels.

First, there is the diversity of the populations that we study and who we are trying to help. Second, there is the diversity of who is doing the research, who is leading the clinical trials and even who the trainees are that are helping push the research forward.

The need for diversity in terms of who we study is so obvious because diseases do not affect all groups equally. I am particularly motivated to study diseases like breast and ovarian cancer that primarily affect women. Within these cancer types, we know that African American women have different risk factors and can experience different outcomes than women of other races. If we study a broader population, we can help a broader population.

It is also important in terms of who is doing the study and who is leading the research, because we are all human and we all have our own blind spots. We cannot possibly expect ourselves or anyone else to consider everything that should be studied in terms of designing our research plans. Having diversity in our researcher pool and amongst our clinicians helps bring in these necessary perspectives and ensure that what we are working on is truly impactful so that we can help as many people as we can.

Healio: What mentorship advice would you offer women in oncology who are just starting out in their career?

Sen: I have benefited so much from mentorship throughout my career and owe a lot to my advisors and colleagues who have helped me. The biggest thing — and this is maybe advice that is easy to give and harder to actually live — is that it is absolutely critical to be persistent.

This is a field that is so hard to succeed in. There are so many structural issues. For example, funding is competitive — there is never enough money to fund all of the good ideas out there. Also, sometimes the disease that we study is such a monster of a disease. Cancer evolves, and every time we think we have made a fundamental breakthrough, there is some new mechanism of resistance, so we must keep fighting — first this, then the next thing and then the next thing.

On top of this, women and a people of color or any underrepresented group, face additional barriers. There is no easy way past these barriers, and each can make an individual want to give up. Every time we are told “no” we must find a different way to go about it.

When something doesn’t go as planned, take 24 hours to feel your feelings, and then get right back to doing the work.

That being said, it is so much easier to keep up the resilience and persistence when you have a group of people who are your absolute cheerleaders. It’s never going to be the case that everybody’s going to see things your way or be supportive of you. Having a core group of people that you can go to that will celebrate the joys with you, process the disappointments with you and offer the constructive criticism you need — that is absolutely critical and the best way to grow as a scientist.

Healio: What research are you currently working on?

Sen: My lab is a cancer immunology lab, and we focus on a couple of different cancer types, including breast and ovarian cancers. We are working toward activating patients’ own immune systems and leveraging that to help fight the cancer cells. A lot of the treatments we’re working on involve giving a therapy to the patient to help activate their immune system, or taking out some of their inactive T cells, modifying them so that they recognize the tumor better, and then putting them back in. This is an approach that many investigators have worked on and have achieved success for diseases like melanoma. What we specifically are trying to figure out are the reasons why a treatment fails or when we have patients who are not responding to treatment, and how can we go in with these latest and greatest tools and technologies, such as genome editing, to fix the issue. We want to figure out how to best use that to overcome treatment resistance and bring immunotherapy to as many patients as possible.

Healio: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?

Sen: I feel so fortunate to have received this grant from the V Foundation. Not only have they been truly supportive of this research and enabling it with funding, but they have also been supportive of my own personal and professional development. By holding career workshops and highlighting women of color and other underrepresented minorities in science, the V Foundation is working to break down these barriers and include more diverse researchers to make our work better. This organization has funded more than $310 million towards research, and it is huge for me to be a part of this community. I feel so grateful.

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