Scared. Overwhelmed. Exhausted. Befuddled.
These are common words one might use to describe how we feel during this unprecedented time in history. But Dmitriy Zamarin, MD, PhD, adds “fascinated” to the list as he ponders the psychological and sociological implications of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This small amount of genetic material that has spread through the world and caused this chaos,” Dmitriy said, “puts life in a completely new perspective. Modern technological advances, the military, bombs … the amount of money being spent on that. And yet you have this tiny little thing that can beat us all.”
Dmitriy, an Assistant Attending Physician and Translational Research Director in the Gynecologic Medical Oncology Service at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, has good reason to be fascinated by what is happening in the world around us. For more than ten years, he has been studying how viruses can be used as therapeutics for cancer.
As he explained, viruses don’t operate in a vacuum. They interact with cancer cells and with the immune system.
Good guys, bad guys, double agents
The specialized immune cells in our bodies, or T-cells, recognize and fight both virus infections and cancer cells. But what scientists like Dmitriy have learned is that cancer cells have certain mechanisms that they use to protect themselves, almost making them invisible to the T-cells.
“If we can overcome these mechanisms,” Dmitriy said, “we can activate the T-cells to recognize and kill cancer cells.”
He and his team are exploring what happens when you infect a cancer cell with a virus. Normally, a virus elicits an immune response which causes inflammation. So when the cancer cell becomes ‘infected’ with the virus, it causes inflammation, which in turn alerts the immune system to see this cancer cell where it wouldn’t have before.
“It sounds a bit crazy because we are giving somebody a virus,” Dmitriy said, “but these viruses are attenuated, meaning they don’t have a good ability to replicate in a human.”
They replicate primarily in the cancer cells. One way of looking at this process is that you have good guys who can’t get into where the bad guys are. So they introduce another bad guy (the virus) who “blows away the doors” allowing the immune cells to get in. A double agent, in essence.
The origins of a career
Dmitriy’s interest in science, specifically microbiology, goes back to his childhood. He was born and grew up in Uzbekistan in the former Soviet Union. His mother is a physician, and so he had always been somewhat exposed to the field of medicine. But when he was 10 or 11 years old, he developed a severe case of chickenpox that caused an inflammation of the brain, which landed him in the hospital for about a month.
“From that point on, I was very interested in doing something with viruses in the future,” Dmitriy said.
The experience of being hospitalized and having to learn how to walk again also impacted his career as a doctor, Dmitriy believes, for the better. “What it constantly reminds me of is the aspect of human interaction,” Dmitriy said. “It definitely gives you the perspective of the patient, despite having this happen so many years ago.”
Dmitriy and his family moved to the United States when he was a teenager, and he went to college in New York. It was then that he had the opportunity to work in a biology lab, where his fascination with viruses was solidified. While he got his PhD in virology, thinking he’d pursue a career in infectious diseases, he was drawn to oncology, specifically gynecological cancers.
“Ovarian cancer had not had much success with immunotherapy,” Dmitriy said, referring to the start of his career, and noting that it still doesn’t today. “I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to jump into a field that has a lot of therapeutic needs, and also needs a lot more scientific understanding.”
Waiting for the bus
Dmitriy reflected on what keeps him motivated, when it feels sometimes like 99% of his work is failure. “It’s like waiting for that bus. Is it going to come? Not going to come? Should I just not take it?”
But he refuses to look at the setbacks as failures. Rather, he sees them as challenges that he sets a goal to overcome. And it’s the possibility that he might be the first person in the world to have an answer, no matter how big or small the question may be, that keeps him at it.
“It may just be 1% of the time,” Dmitriy said. “But that 1% of knowing that you have contributed to the world’s knowledge? That’s probably the biggest motivation that keeps me going.”
Dr. Zamarin’s grant was made possible in part by a generous donation from Torrid via a grant from the Torrid Foundation. These funds were raised through customer round-ups and donations in Torrid stores nationwide and online at torrid.com during Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in September 2019.
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