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Q&A with Claire Shudde: Triggering a Stronger Immune Response to Cancer

August 23, 2023

Claire Shudde is a PhD student at the University of Michigan and a 2023 recipient of a PhRMA Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship in Drug Discovery.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became interested in biomedical research. 

I grew up on a ranch and spent my formative years exploring the natural world and how animals, plants, and bugs all lived and interacted together. As I got older and began taking more in-depth science classes, I learned how our bodies have cells and systems inside that function in harmony in a manner similar to what I witnessed on the ranch. The curiosity I had about the natural world shifted to focus on the body and how disease disrupts its natural function. I was particularly interested in cancer and sought research opportunities to study how the body could fight back against it. My time researching and designing cancer immunotherapies is fulfilling because I get to work to restore the balance of our bodies to fight cancer and hopefully improve the therapies currently available to cancer patients. 

Briefly describe your PhRMA Foundation-funded research project.

Our immune system is programmed to fight disease, but cancer can shut down the signals needed for the immune system to eradicate cancer. My project is looking at a section of the immune system called T cells. These cells can directly kill cancer cells, but often struggle to do so because cancer shuts down the important signals these killer T cells need to function. I am in the preclinical stages of designing a synthetic activator that will restore these signals. I am also working to trigger new signals that will cause the rest of the immune system to help the killer T cells, altogether resulting in a stronger anti-cancer response by the immune system. 

What is the potential impact of your research on patients?

Current T cell therapies are limited to blood cancers, so a large population of patients have yet to benefit from T cell immunotherapies as a cancer treatment. The hope is that this project will increase the efficacy of T cell immunotherapies for other types of cancer.  

How will the PhRMA Foundation’s support impact your research and your career?  

The PhRMA Foundation’s support enables me focus on my lab work and collect data without having to worry about finding funding. Since being funded by the PhRMA Foundation, my time at the bench has gone up because I don’t have to write grants or teach to cover my expenses. This has enabled me to make large strides in my data production to answer more questions about restoring T cell signals to fight cancer. The PhRMA Foundation has allowed me to make new connections with incredible scientists who can help me find careers that fit my skills and interests.  

What has surprised you the most in your research journey so far?   

The way I think has changed drastically since starting graduate school. I am much more competent as a pharmacologist and immunologist, and I am even more capable of thinking through experiments and situations. A Ph.D. is truly a degree in thinking, and I was pleasantly surprised the first time I was able to ask a question about my project and devise multiple experiments with the proper controls to answer the question. 

What advice would you give to researchers applying for PhRMA Foundation awards? 

Look at the big picture of your project. Your work today might not be in the clinic tomorrow, but it can lay the foundation for people after you. If you can see how you and your project fit into the big picture, then your research will become more tangible and meaningful to you. If your project is meaningful to you, and you believe that your work will make a difference, that passion will translate into your application. 

What are your future career aspirations?  

Now that I have experience on the preclinical side of drug development, I am looking forward to interacting with patients and seeing drugs into the clinic. As of now, I do not know whether this is working with patients directly or by working on managing clinical trials, but I am excited to see the outcome of drugs my peers and I have studied.  

Learn more about the PhRMA Foundation’s fellowship and grant opportunities. Check out more researcher stories on our blog.