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Training the next generation of cancer immunotherapy experts

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Jiajia Zhang

Jiajia Zhang was a trained oncologist in China when she read news about former Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Johns Hopkins and the launch of the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute. "I want to make more of an impact in patients' lives, and I believe immunotherapy is the future of cancer treatment," says Zhang.

She decided to focus the rest of her career on research, and she was accepted into a master of public health program in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

It's been a transformative year for Zhang. She plans to work with Alex Baras, M.D., Ph.D., in the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, to develop databases that track biological cues in patients on immunotherapy drugs that may help physicians predict their response to the drugs.

Q&A with Zhang:

When did you first hear about the launch of the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy?
I heard about the launch of the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy last April, shortly after its announcement. At that time, I was deciding between MPH programs in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The news of the Institute really swayed my decision towards Johns Hopkins because I believe this would be the place where my aspirations would be realized - combining biostatistics and epidemiological skillsets with cutting-edge cancer immunotherapy.

What aspect of the Institute caught your interest?
Cancer immunotherapy harnesses the body's own immune system to target cancer cells. It not only has major implications for established treatments, but will also impact cancer prevention in that infectious diseases vaccines have protected hundreds of millions from viruses and bacteria. At the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute, leading scientists collaborate closely with clinical oncologists to innovate novel immunotherapy and screening strategies to fight cancer. Its solid foundation of translational research has led to the discovery of PD-1 inhibitory receptors, development of targeted antibodies and demonstration of their clinical activity in multiple cancer types.

What area of research will you focus on in the Institute?
I hope to use what I have learned in JHSPH to help create relational databases that would link all immune analyses of immunotherapy patients to their clinical outcomes. We aspire to create platforms that can link together the information from many institutions, not only in the US but internationally. I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to initiate a relationship between Dr. Jia-fu Ji, China's most prominent gastric cancer researcher in China and director of Peking University Cancer Hospital, and Dr. Drew Pardoll, BKI director. Dr Pardoll will visit Beijing this year to discuss a collaboration that will hopefully integrate experiences with the world's largest gastric cancer population and the immunotherapy expertise of the BKI.

What do you hope your research will accomplish?
We aim to design a pathway that links scientific research and patient-level data to accelerate scientific discovery, clinical application and public change in the field of cancer immunotherapy. There are many insights on how patients will benefit from specific immunotherapies that can only come from analysis of large relational databases capturing immunologic and clinical information from hundreds, even thousands of patients.