WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Burlington Native Researching Immunotherapy to Treat Cancer

Jan 25, 2018

Dr. Laura Rogers said even though she took a variety of classes while attending Burlington High School, she might have gone "a little heavy" on the science curriculum. 

“Freshman year I had biology with a teacher named Elizabeth Sanning. She taught some additional courses that I ended up taking later – zoology and organic chemistry – which were elective courses that I was interested in taking partially because I liked her teaching style and also to prepare for college,” said Rogers.

“One of the things she told us is that your first job as a scientist is to observe. Always observe.  Throughout all of my training that has really held true and it’s something I tell my students when I’m training people.  Always observe. Because you never know what observation is going to end up being important.”

Rogers graduated from Burlington High in 2003 and studied microbiology as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa. Rogers said she developed a liking for research while working her first lab job in graduate school.

Now Rogers is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Iowa where she does research into immunotherapy for cancer patients.  She said the treatment uses a patient’s immune system to fight cancer.

“I think by the time you have a tumor, your immune system has become overwhelmed,” Rogers said.  “There are a lot of different strategies to boost the immune response. A lot of those that are more widely available now in the clinic are focused on getting a specific cell type, called a T-Cell, to reactivate.  T-Cells are good at killing tumor cells but they get shut down over time. 

“So the immunotherapies that are trying to help T-Cells regain that ability to kill tumor cells are the antibody treatments that are widely used in the clinic now.”

She said T-Cells are able to detect an abnormal cell, zero in on it, and kill only that cell, whereas other types of immune cells might damage more than just the targeted cell.

She said this area of research is showing some promise.  “In this clinical trial, the patients that responded really responded.”

Rogers said scientists are in the business of solving puzzles.  She said her puzzle of choice involves making the immune system do a better job of recognizing and killing tumor cells. Rogers said it can be frustrating at times but added she has the kind of mind that simply can’t put down the puzzles. 

“You’re coming up with ways to maybe describe observations that you see and different experiments that are able to test it, and a lot times they’re wrong so you end up going back to the drawing board many times to try to figure out what’s going on and how we can leverage that to help human patients.”

Rogers said she is finishing up her postdoctoral studies at the University of Iowa and is looking for a job where she would be on the faculty at an institution while also leading her own research program into immunotherapy.

And she said students who are interested in science should consider attending the Southeast Iowa STEM Festival at Southeastern Community College on February 10.  She said such events offer a great opportunity for students to learn about the people and opportunities in the field.