Q&A – with Dr Alba Gonzalez-Junca

In the first of our series to showcase some of our most active community members, today we meet Alba – a postdoc at UCSF.

Go to the profile of Dr Alison Halliday
Feb 02, 2018
1

What is your full name, job title and where do you work?

Alba Gonzalez-Junca, Postdoctoral researcher at University of California San Francisco (UCSF)

What are your main research interests?

The main focus of my research is to understand how radiotherapy can impact the tumour microenvironment and the immune system, especially mediating the activation of the immune-suppressive cytokine TGF-beta. We propose to combine TGF-beta inhibitors with radiotherapy to promote anti-tumour immunity.

Describe your work in a tweet

Researchers at UCSF are combining radiotherapy with immunotherapy to boost the immune system and kill cancer!

What big projects are you working on right now?

I am currently studying the effects of inhibiting TGF-beta in combination with radiotherapy in pre-clinical models of glioblastoma and brain metastasis. Those are some of the indications with poorest prognosis and there is an unmet need to better understanding how to prime the immune system in this context. We are characterizing the response to different treatments focusing in the tumour microenvironment composition as well as the systemic immune system.

Who do you collaborate with?

We collaborate with several groups at UCSF, including the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. We also collaborate with Dr Valerie Weaver to study the role of tissue mechanics in our models. We also have collaboration with radiology and imaging department where we are trying to establish new immune-PET imaging techniques to detect and monitor the response to therapy.

Tell us a bit about your career so far

I obtained my PhD in Barcelona, studying the role of TGF-beta in the regulation of glioma initiating cells under the supervision of Dr Seoane. After graduating, I moved to New York, to join Dr Barcellos-Hoff lab and switched gears to work on radiation oncology studying how radiation-induced TGF-beta regulates the immune system. After 2 years, my lab moved to San Francisco. Being in the Bay Area helped me be in close contact with the amazing and dynamic world of start-ups and biotech, which I believe are going to be critical for the advancement of novel immune-therapies.

What are you most proud of?

I have a very curious mind, which I believe is the best trait on a scientist. I always keep learning new things and pushing myself out of my comfort zone, that’s the best way to improve and move forward!

What’s your interest in the cancer immune-setpoint?

I believe it is a very powerful tool to share the current knowledge about the immune system and the different mechanisms of immune suppression found in cancer. I am truly convinced immunotherapy is going to provide a cure for most cancer patients, but we really need to understand each patient/tumour and the underlying mechanisms that drive the immune suppression - to better design immunotherapies and combinations of therapies, in order to effectively promote anti-tumour immunity.

What do you hope it will achieve?

It will provide a rapid and dynamic mean to share our knowledge on the field of immune-oncology. I envision in a near future it would become a reference tool to discover new interactions and mechanisms of action, something similar to Ingenuity Pathway Analysis (IPA), but focused on immune-oncology.

What are your hopes for the future of cancer immunotherapy?

I hope we will be able to better understand what drives responses and resistance to immunotherapy in patients, to tailor the combinations of therapies and obtain high rates of response and cures. I am certain cancer immunotherapy is revolutionizing oncology and will provide effective cures for most of the patients.

What advice do you have for others working in the field?

Don’t follow what everyone else is doing. Checkpoint inhibitors work, we get it, but we need to understand what else is important in order to improve the response rates.

What do you do to wind down?

Boxing. There’s something incredibly relaxing on fighting and punching people. I also love being outdoors and travel to national parks.

Tell us something unusual about yourself

I am very passionate about my job (not sure if this is unusual or not though!) as a fun fact, the day of my wedding I was irradiating the mice in the morning, before going to the ceremony. The coolest part is that the treatment worked very well and I could cure their tumours so I was very happy about it!

Another unusual thing but not so much related to work: besides being a scientist I am a photographer. I always carry my Leica everywhere I go!


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Go to the profile of Dr Alison Halliday

Dr Alison Halliday

Community Manager, Nature Research

Molecular Biologist turned freelance science communicator, with 10 year's experience at Cancer Research UK.

1 Comments

Go to the profile of Dan Chen MD PhD
Dan Chen MD PhD 9 months ago

I really enjoyed reading this piece with Dr Alba Gonzalez-Junca. Immunotherapy+radiation therapy has started off very similarly to cancer immunotherapy years ago- and many other aspects of new science. A sound initial scientific hypothesis, and little inklings that suggest something about the approach works. And yet, it's hard not to wonder why it doesn't work much, much better! The answer probably lies in nuances of the immunologic reaction that we don't fully yet understand. What's the best way to deliver the radiation, to achieve the optimal immunologic reaction? What is the immune reaction that we are trying to stimulate? necrosis? infiltrating T effectors while limiting Tregs and MDSCs? And as Dr. Gonzalez-Junca suggests, our old friend/foe TGFb? Any other ideas on pathways that limit anti-cancer immunity in the setting of radiation therapy? 

Very much looking forward to learning more from this work. -dan