At the latest installment of Wistar’s Women & Science Program, guest speaker Dr. Padmanee Sharma, a distinguished clinician and researcher who has focused her career on understanding how to boost the human immune system to treat cancer, shared her personal and scientific journey to reaching the forefront of her field.
Born to immigrant parents of Indian descent in Guyana, who later fled the country due to political and religious turmoil and arrived with few resources in the U.S., Sharma chased “her American dream” supported by the strong women in her family, who encouraged her passion for science and medicine.
Dr. Sharma relayed how she had to work harder and more efficiently than many to succeed, though her path was guided by strong forces: a passion for immunology, a healthy dose of ambition, a can-do attitude, and mentors who believed in her.
“Women are oftentimes faced with a dismissive attitude,” Sharma said. “But in the end, what proves your value is the ability to deliver on your ideas.”
Sharma’s immunology research coincided and contributed to the inception of the immunotherapy revolution, when the immune checkpoint pathways had just been discovered as the “brake pedals” that control our immune responses. This suggested the idea that checkpoint inhibitor blockade therapy could “take the foot off the brake pedal” and unleash the full antitumor potential of our immune system.
“This was a paradigm shift in cancer therapy,” said Sharma. “For the first time, we were able to cure patients and achieve long-term remission.”
Pushing back initial skepticism, Sharma ran the first pre-surgical immunotherapy clinical trial, proving the idea that access to pre- and post-treatment tissue samples provides a deeper insight into the antitumor mechanisms of immunotherapy. Today, her research strategy reflects this model, with a continuous crosstalk between clinical observations and basic research.
“We need to design clinical trials that are guided and backed by strong science and, at the same time, use what we learn in patients to steer our basic research in the right direction.”
As a mother of three girls, a professor, principal investigator and the co-director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Sharma’s life is very busy.
“There is no perfect balance recipe that applies to everyone,” she said. “We need to figure out what works best for us while being respectful of other people’s choices.”
In her case, success is based on following her vision, building a strong team and finding a loving partner who celebrates her passion.