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Neha Wali

DPhil student

Research Interests

It is well known that cancer is a disease of mutations that build up over time. One type of cancer treatment is immunotherapy, which is a wide umbrella of treatment options that turn off the body’s normal “brakes” on the immune system so that it can recognise and kill cancer cells. Although these therapies work well in some patients with cancer, many patients are resistant to them. As a result, there are extensive scientific and medical efforts to understand why some patients with cancer respond to immunotherapy and others do not.

My work focuses on a gene that normally prevents cancer, called p53, which is also the most commonly mutated gene in cancer. Interestingly, when this gene is mutated, it can affect how the immune system responds against tumours. In my research, I work at the intersection of tumour immunology and cancer genomics in the context of oesophageal cancer, which is a tumour type with a notably poor prognosis. At the Ludwig Institute, I analyse samples collected from a Phase 1/2 clinical trial (LUD2015-005) in which patients with oesophageal cancer are administered an immune checkpoint inhibitor (a form of immunotherapy) and chemotherapy. With these samples, I explore how p53 mutations in tumours influence the antitumour immunity and affect immunotherapy efficacy. Hopefully with my work, I can find new markers of response for current treatments and new targets of therapy to increase patient survival.

Background

I graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in 2018 with a BS in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. As an undergraduate student, I took part in several research opportunities at UMBC, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, and the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. At these institutions, I engaged in a range of projects that examined tumour immunology and cancer genomics in novel approaches to improve the effectiveness of immunotherapy, which further strengthened my passion for these fields. I realised that a dual-degree programme would therefore be the best option to weld my strong interests in science and medicine. After I graduated from UMBC, I was selected in the South Texas Medical Scientist Training Programme in San Antonio as an MD/PhD student. After I completed my second year of medical school, I was accepted into the National Institutes of Health Oxford-Cambridge (NIH OxCam) Scholars Programme to pursue graduate studies in a research collaboration between the NCI and the University of Oxford. Consequently, I matriculated at Oxford in 2020 as a DPhil student of Magdalen College.