Last Call with Jenna Balestrini, the WPI grad treating cancer with cell therapy – Worcester Mag

Posted: January 14, 2021 at 2:50 pm

Sarah Connell Sanders| Correspondent

Jenna Balestrini is the Head of Strategy and Business Development for Precision Medicine and Cell Bioprocessing at Draper.

What is your connection to the city of Worcester?

Well, I love Worcester. I moved there to do my Ph.D. in 2003. I graduated with a Ph.D. from WPI in 2009. I have to say, those were six of the best years of my life. Worcester is such an amazing place and WPI is such a great school. I've always had a fondness for that city more than pretty much anywhere else I've lived. It's just a very special place filled with really great people.

I was hoping you could talk a bit about your career trajectory, particularly after you finished your Ph.D.

I went to WPI and worked for Kristen Billiar, who is the best advisor anyone could ever ask for. One of our focuses was to understand the environment in cells and around cells. Factors like breathing or stiffness can either stimulate cells or impact cells pathologically and create disease. Or, if you understand a cells environment, you can harness those signals and start to build therapies. You can get cells to make specific proteins and we looked at the fundamentals of that. From there, I did a postdoc in Toronto studying fibrosis with Boris Hinz. Then, I went to Yale and worked for Laura Niklason doing translational medicine work. All of this ties to understanding how we can direct regenerative medicine applications with cells by understanding the cues around them to make different therapies. In 2016, I was at the end of my postdoc and I was trying to think about what to do. I had wanted to be a professor for many years, but towards the end, I realized what I really wanted was to be more translational and be a little bit closer to where the patients and the action are. I had a friend that I met at WPI who recommended I speak to her uncle, Jeff Borenstein, at Draper. I'd never heard of Draper before and I didn't know much about the nonprofit world. He looked at my CV and said, "You know what, you'd actually make a really good fit here."

What can you tell me about Draper?

I came to Draper in 2016. As a nonprofit, Draper reinvests its profits into research. One of the manifestations of that are large internal awards called IRaD, which stands for Internal Research and Development. Within six months, I got an IRaD to build technologies to make the next generation of cell therapy. That project went from concept to commercial pretty quickly. I transitioned into being a business development lead and then the portfolio grew even more, mainly because I work with some really talented engineers, some of whom went to WPI. Ultimately, we partnered with Kite Therapeutics. So what that means is my career in cell therapy literally went from an idea scribbled on a napkin with a colleague, to overseeing a partnership with, in my opinion, one of the best cell therapy companies in the world in just a few years. I am in a completely different space than I ever would have imagined. I had no idea I'd ever go into business or cell therapy and I'm really pleased.

I suspect a lot of great ideas have started on napkins. I'm curious about just the term cell bioprocessing. Can you explain it for someone lacking a science background?

Basically, what we're trying to do is take cells from a patient and modify them to make those cells into therapies themselves. It's a really interesting way to enable a patient to heal themselves. We take your immune system cells and then we genetically modify them with equipment that we've made. The equipment separates the cells from your blood, and then we introduce genes that serve as a set of instructions for your immune system to attack something like cancer. Think of it like taking those cells from the patient, giving them some extra tools to make them "super-powered," to make them better at hunting down and identifying things like cancer, and then putting them back into the patient.

Sounds very futuristic.

So here's the thing, I don't know why this is, but most people don't realize that it's not 10 years from now. It's happening right now. Cell therapy is FDA approved. If you have certain types of leukemia or lymphoma, you can get cell therapy made from your cells to target and kill your cancer. And this is a curative solution. You can get a dose of these cells that have been modified to hunt the leukemia down, or lymphoma down, and then you are cured from that disease.

That's amazing.

We're living in an era where cancer is curable. But now, the thing is, can we take it further? You can identify a unique combination that separates out the thing you're trying to hunt down HIV, hepatitis. You can also use the same tools to rectify genetic diseases like sickle cell anemia or cystic fibrosis. It's just a faulty gene that you can replace, right? Those are the next steps.

What are your hopes for the future?

You know what? I would like people to get excited. Everything I just described is what's called autologous cell therapy we take cells from a patient and do all of this work and it's really expensive to do but the future is something called allogeneic cell therapy, where we can take the same tool to do genetic engineering or modification of cells and knock out all those individual components that make yourself uniquely identifiable to you. From that, you create a universal donor. And you can use that as a starting material to make therapies for everyone. So what that means for you as a patient is that you could come into your doctor's office and find out you have something, let's just say a cancer, and you'll have an off-the-shelf ready-to-go therapy that day, frozen and ready to go for you. I don't think that chemotherapy and radiation are going to last much longer in terms of what the first line of defense is going to be. And they're terrible. The truth is, we are still behind the times with cancer therapy. If you look at the cause of death over the last hundred years, pretty much everything but cancer has gone down. Heart disease, influenza, strokes, but not cancer. This is for a variety of reasons, one of which is that we're living longer. But the thing is, our tools are terrible. We kill people with our drugs. Weve arrived at a moment when we can finally imagine a world where cancer is no big deal.

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Last Call with Jenna Balestrini, the WPI grad treating cancer with cell therapy - Worcester Mag

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