Kelly Moynihan, Hertz Fellow, Focuses on Engineering the Immune System to Fight Cancer

August 17, 2015

Discovering Immunotherapies for Cancer

When Kelly was a senior in high school, her father was diagnosed with late-stage kidney cancer and given little chance to survive beyond five years. After having a kidney removed and benefiting from a new medication, her father is healthy today, and Kelly’s compass is set on impacting the field of cancer research.

“Cancer is something that had touched me very personally, at a time when I was deciding what career path I wanted to follow,” Kelly said. “It’s a fascinating and challenging problem that impacts many people.”

Kelly, Hertz Fellow 2012, is a PhD student at MIT in bioengineering. She is seeking answers to the cancer conundrum through immunotherapy—engineering the body’s own immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells in the same way it can eliminate common viruses. It sounds crazy, Kelly admits, but some incredible advances have been made in the past year, especially with melanomas. Early results, using a combination of so-called ‘checkpoint inhibitors,’ which reinvigorate patients’ own immune responses to cancer, have surpassed expectations in the clinic. Kelly thinks this is just the tip of the iceberg for cancer immunotherapy. 

Her early work focused on a vaccine system that hones extremely efficiently to lymph nodes by binding to endogenous albumin. The result, as published in the journal Nature in 2014, showed that the modified peptide vaccine was both safer and more effective than the unmodified vaccine, and that the vaccine system was capable of controlling tumor growth in rodent cancer models. Her work now focuses on discovering combinations of immunotherapies that synergize to eliminate large, established tumors, and uncovering the mechanisms of efficacy to better design next-generation therapies.

Growing up in Austin, Texas, as the daughter of a computer programmer and a nurse, it was a natural curiosity for Kelly to explore biomedical engineering. She pursued her undergraduate studies at the University of Texas, earning her bachelor's degree in 2012. Kelly entered MIT for graduate school leaning towards a career in academia, and now she’s considering other career possibilities as well.

“It would be exciting to get involved with an immunotherapy startup,” Kelly said. “I am excited about immunotherapy because it’s such a radically different approach when compared with chemotherapy and radiation. It’s a totally different way of thinking because you aren’t directly treating the tumor, you’re treating the immune system, which then destroys the tumor.”

Kelly also has a passion for teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education to youth. Her interest began in college through Student Engineers Educating Kids (SEEK), where she engaged middle-school students in hands-on engineering activities to pique their interest in science. At MIT, she’s continued educating young students through The Innovation Institute, a startup based in Newton, Massachusetts. She created a 3D printing summer camp for middle school students and developed a high school course on state-of-the-art science called, “At the Frontiers.” Hertz Fellows Max Mankin, Vyas Ramanan, Jon Russell, and Jim Valcourt also taught several of these classes.

“It’s so important for the community at-large to be scientifically literate. If that knowledge begins at a young age, that’s something students can carry into adulthood,” she said. “It’s important to ensure that we can produce the next generation of creative scientists and engineers.”

Through the social and professional connections made possible by her Hertz Fellowship and the Hertz Community, Kelly said she’s come in contact with people she may not have been introduced to otherwise. “You show up the first day for the annual Hertz Summer Workshop and it’s like a summer camp for nerds,” she said. “Everyone is very friendly, very warm. It’s truly an amazing community of people.”