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Tonya Webb, Ph.D.
University of Maryland

Explores the Role of the Body's Immune System in Fighting Cancer

Tonya Webb, Ph.D.

Natural Killer T (NKT) cells are the kingpins of the human body's immune system. They help protect the body from infection and help fight cancer. For the past 16 years, Tonya Webb, Ph.D., has devoted her career to finding new ways to use our body's own immune system to destroy cancer cells that invade within.

Webb, a CRCHD K01 and R21 grantee, is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in microbiology and immunology—an appointment she has held since 2009. Her laboratory investigates the role of NKT cells in cancer immunotherapy.

"NKT cells are a unique subset of T cells that display markers characteristic of both natural killer and T cells," said Webb. They produce substances known as cytokines, which assist the body in removing viruses and tumor cells.

Webb's laboratory has found a decrease in NKT cell number and function in lymphoma, breast cancer, and prostate cancer patients, compared to healthy donors. If a patient has fewer NKT cells, does it put him or her at greater risk for cancer? This is what Webb is trying to ascertain.

Webb's own research relates to the field of immunotherapy. Preclinical studies and clinical trials have demonstrated that immunotherapy can effectively treat many cancers. According to Webb, the mechanisms by which NKT cells are functionally reduced in cancer patients have yet to be identified. What is known is that lipids frequently shed by breast and ovarian tumors can block immune responses.

"One of our goals is to investigate the efficacy of ex vivo-expanded NKT cells as a cancer immunotherapeutic strategy for cancer patients," says Webb. Specifically, she plans to use an innovative system based on artificial antigen-presenting cells (aAPC) to stimulate and expand effector NKT cell subsets from cancer patients and assess their ability to mount anti-tumor immune responses. Among the next steps in her research will be to characterize genetic and epigenetic changes in cancers that block NKT cell-mediated anti-tumor responses to cancer.

Webb graduated cum laude from Prairie View A&M University in 1998 with a B.S. degree in biology and chemistry. She completed her Ph.D. at Indiana University in 2003 in microbiology and immunology. At Indiana University, she studied under the direction of Randy Brutkiewicz, Ph.D., a leader in the field of NKT cell biology.

She has also completed post-doctoral fellowships at Indiana School of Medicine, in Indianapolis (2005), under the mentorship of David Wilkes, M.D., and at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore (2009), under the direction of Jonathan Schneck, M.D., Ph.D and Mathias Oelke, Ph.D, where her work focused on cancer immunology.

Dr. Webb is a member of several professional societies and has served on numerous NIH study panels, including the NIH/NCI Special Panel to Study Cancer Health Disparities/Diversity in Basic Cancer Research. She is the recipient of more than 18 scientific awards, and has authored more than 29 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals.

Updated: 01/10/14