Fernanda Szewc

Fernanda SzewcPhD candidate, Clinical Investigation

Faculty advisor: Christian Capitini

Fernanda is a PhD candidate working in the Department of Pediatrics at the School of Medicine and Public Health. She develops cancer treatments that utilize immune cells.

“Immune therapy development in oncology focuses on applying the immune system as an approach to treat cancer,” Fernanda explained. “Immune cell therapy has been in use for decades, with ongoing efforts aimed at discovering new and more effective approaches to treating cancer.”

Fernanda’s work underscores the potential of leveraging the body’s innate immune system, specifically Natural Killer (NK) cells, to target and eliminate Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) cells. Using a bioengineering method for providing instructions to immune cells, Fernanda guides existing NK cells to find and eliminate RMS cells in the body. RMS is an incredibly aggressive form of solid tumor cancer that originates in muscle cells. It is one of the most common solid tumor cancers in the pediatric population.

“The five-year survival rate is dismal, at approximately 20-30%, for patients who do not respond to treatment and/or experience relapsed disease,” Fernanda said. “Unfortunately, most RMS patients will experience relapse following diagnosis, and therapeutic options for them are incredibly limited.”

That limitation is due to a few factors, including the complexity of the disease, its aggressive nature, and insufficient exploration of innovative treatment modalities, Fernanda said. Researchers like Fernanda are working to apply cutting-edge tools and knowledge in immune cell therapies to discover more successful treatments for RMS.

Fernanda is the lead author in a publication on the topic in the Journal of ImmunoTherapy of Cancer and is one of the authors of a publication in The Journal of Immunology and a recent preprint on bioRxiv.

During her work, Fernanda has found that the NK cells target and destroy RMS cells, but also go further by signaling nearby immune cells to do the same thing. She’s currently gathering data to help move this method forward into clinical trials.

“My work involves gathering the necessary preclinical data to demonstrate the efficacy of this therapy, supporting its evaluation in clinical trials with the aim of providing therapy options for RMS patients,” she said.

When she came to UW–Madison, Fernanda received an Advanced Opportunity Fellowship and joined the Science and Medicine Graduate Research Scholars (SciMed GRS) community.

“The fellowship has equipped me with valuable resources and tools to navigate common pitfalls associated with graduate school in the field, setting me up for success in my future endeavors,” she said. “Belonging to the prestigious SciMed community has further provided me with opportunities to access resources that promote continuous professional growth beyond my graduate studies.”

In her second year of graduate school, Fernanda received the prestigious National Institutes of Health TL1 Training Award, which offers financial support, training experience, and access to professional development. Fernanda added that the award helps expand her prospects of qualifying for future research grants, and the training provides support toward her goal of becoming a physician-scientist at an academic institution.

She also expressed gratitude to donors whose funding make the Advanced Opportunity Fellowships available.

“I am profoundly grateful to the donors for generously providing individuals, such as myself, with the invaluable opportunity to pursue our professional goals,” Fernanda said. “Their support has made a significant impact on our journeys, and we are sincerely thankful for their belief in our potential and commitment to fostering our success.”