When Cancer Hits Close to Home

Ph.D. Student Researches Manipulating Immune System to Prevent Cancer

Riccay Elizondo

Riccay Elizondo, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate from San Angelo, remembers wanting to be a veterinarian at the age of three and then a physician in high school. But then in her senior year as an undergraduate in college, she took an immunology class, and the experience opened her eyes to a whole new world of research — she was hooked.

“Cancer hits close to home for me and my family,” Elizondo said. “I lost my cousin Taylor, who was diagnosed at 13 and passed away at 17 from osteosarcoma. He was basically like my brother, and I saw his struggles. And then all the women on my mom's side, they've all had breast cancer. So, cancer is definitely a big part of my family. Exploring cancer in the field of immunology definitely is where I want to focus my future on.”

In order to develop research experience, Elizondo received her master’s degree in biology at Angelo State University. She later researched numerous universities and came across the work of Robert Bright, Ph.D., a Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) professor of immunology, who had completed extensive studies establishing that vaccination against a specific self-tumor protein can mount an immune response preventing various cancers. She applied to work in his lab and began her doctoral program at TTUHSC.

“Being a Ph.D. student is hard work,” Elizondo said. “Sometimes we can work up to 100 hours a week. Even when we’re not in the lab, we’re constantly thinking about our research and what we should do next. With my research, I'm looking specifically at the CD8+T cell response. This research is in response to a vaccine that Dr. Bright created with his research.”

Riccay Elizondo

With her dissertation, “Morphed Characterization of CD8 T-Cells Elicited by Tumor Protein D52 Vaccination,” Elizondo hopes to see if cancer can be prevented.

“That's what my project is over — preventing it from ever even happening by manipulating the immune system,” Elizondo said. “Really, I just want to play with the immune system and see what happens. In Dr. Bright’s lab, we are doing this through vaccination against a sef-protein, tumor protein D52, and we are seeing promising results. However, we see some cells that are essentially rejecting that manipulation, and with my research we are trying to pinpoint those cells so they potentially can be silenced. Hopefully, the rest of the immune system will follow what we're wanting it to do, and we can prevent many cancers from ever occurring.”

Her hope is this research can prevent someone who has a genetic cancer background from ever getting cancer. Bright’s idea is that one day when a person gets the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine or even later in life the shingles vaccine, that the person also be vaccinated with a cancer vaccine to prevent the disease. Elizondo said she hopes to continue similar research and work in the immune-oncology industry field. She plans to defend her dissertation in October and graduate this December.

Although Elizondo is busy with her research, this year, she, along with Whitni Redman, is the co-chair of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences Student Research Week. The week-long event will feature immunology and TTUHSC highlights in research.

“One great thing about Student Research Week is that we all get to learn about the research going on here at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center,” Elizondo said. “It’s exciting because so many of us don't really even know what others are doing in research. The event will give everyone the opportunity to see the presentations, posters and understand what students and colleagues have been doing for the last couple of years. What I enjoy the most is that it's a great learning experience. No matter at what level of research you are at, participants will have fun and enjoy experiencing what others are working on.”

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