Recognizing the accomplishments of women in science: A conversation with Ana Bolivar, 2021 WISE award winner

An image of DNA and T cell to depict using immunosequencing to better understand Lynch Syndrome.
Ana M. Bolivar

Adaptive Biotechnologies is committed to recognizing and promoting the work of women scientists across immune science because we understand that greater diversity leads to greater discoveries.

To make this mission a reality, in 2020, Adaptive created the immunoSEQ Women in Immune Science (WISE) award, a $15,000 grant awarded annually to a woman scientist. Applications for the 2022 WISE Award are open through June 30, 2022.

We recently spoke with last year’s WISE award winner, Ana Bolivar, a PhD candidate in Dr. Eduardo Vilar’s lab at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Ana’s research focuses on Lynch Syndrome, an inherited cancer syndrome that affects >1 million Americans. Patients with Lynch Syndrome are much more likely to develop cancer at young ages and therefore undergo invasive regular screenings with the hope of detecting cancer early.

Ana spoke with us about the important role that T cells play in Lynch Syndrome and how her project leverages the sequencing depth and flexibility of the immunoSEQ Assay to associate specific T-cell clones with different cancer phenotypes. She ultimately hopes that this work could lead to a T-cell-based biomarker for early cancer detection that would reduce the burden of invasive screening methods. Quotes have been edited for clarity.

Adaptive Biotechnologies: How did you get interested in science, and what sparked your interest?

Ana Bolivar: It started when I was a kid. I come from a family where everyone has gone into science…In elementary school, I remember biology being my favorite subject and loving chemistry in high school. It’s something that’s been ingrained in me since childhood.

[My interest in immunology and cancer] started more recently when I started graduate school. I was a big fan of molecular biology…I realized that cancer was a bigger thing. When I started my PhD in the Vilar Lab…he introduced me to this hereditary cancer syndrome in which patients have a higher risk of developing cancer compared to the general population. The tumors they develop produce higher levels of neoantigens. So the immune system plays a very big role during tumor development in these patients.

Adaptive: How are you using immunosequencing to better understand Lynch Syndrome?

Bolivar: We are interested in better understanding the role of immune cells in Lynch Syndrome and in using the immune system to improve the quality of life of these patients. [Patients with Lynch Syndrome] develop cancers at younger ages because they inherit mutations in DNA mismatch repair genes, which are in charge of correcting mistakes during DNA replication. They accumulate a lot of mutations, and the tumors that form produce a lot of neoantigens.

We take T cells from peripheral blood and sequence the TCRs using the immunoSEQ Assay. We also sequence the tissue of pre-cancers and cancers that develop in these patients.

By matching the peripheral T-cell repertoire with that of the tumor, we hope to detect cancer-specific TCR signatures.

The long-term goal of this project is the development of an early cancer detection method, using a blood-based technique. If we can achieve this, it could offer a much less invasive way to detect cancer.

I’m excited about the idea that I’m potentially helping patients improve their quality of life, which we are already achieving in the lab. All the extra knowledge and molecular insights we are obtaining, help us better understand the disease.

Adaptive: There are many types of immunosequencing methods. Why did you choose the immunoSEQ Assay for your research?

Bolivar: We are trying to detect rare T-cell receptors.

The immunoSEQ Assay allows for a deeper sequencing depth to find those rare clonotypes.

Also, we are sequencing tissue from FFPE samples, which RNA-based methods are not very compatible with.

Adaptive: Immunosequencing provides a wealth of data and information but can also be complicated to analyze and interpret. What resources have you found useful to make the most of your immunosequencing data? 

Bolivar: With the first batch [of sequencing results], I decided to dig deeper into the Adaptive website and look at all the resources they offer. I found a wide variety of video tutorials on topics like how to use the kit and the immunoSEQ Analyzer as well as webinars with presentations of different projects that use immunosequencing.

The blogs and webinars on how other people have analyzed their [immunoSEQ] data have helped me generate ideas on how I want to look at my data and what I want to look into… That has helped me better plan my experiments and better understand how immunosequencing can help my research.

Adaptive: How has the WISE award impacted your research?

Bolivar: This award has helped us towards the sequencing of hundreds of samples, which is important because we are using machine learning. The more samples, the better.

Adaptive: Do you have any advice for other women in science?

Bolivar: There are two main things that have been important for me going into science.

First, is to trust the knowledge that you have accumulated over the years. Don’t be afraid to present your ideas. Show off that knowledge and be proud of it.

Second, have a good support system, especially of other female scientists. I have been lucky to have great examples in my family, at work, and at school of women working in science. They all have played a big role in helping me to achieve what I have achieved so far.

If you have a project that could benefit from the insights that immunosequencing provides, apply now for the 2022 WISE award. Applications are open through June 30. The award winner will be announced by July 29, 2022.

If you’re curious about T-cell repertoire profiling and the immunoSEQ Assay, contact us. A representative can help you determine if the immunoSEQ Assay is the right approach for your research needs.

For Research Use Only. Not for use in diagnostic procedures.

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