Emily Ashkin grew up strongly believing that age is no limitation. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Emily was touched by cancer at a very young age. When Emily was eleven, her mom was diagnosed with skin cancer. Like every 21st-century kid, she desperately searched the world of information at her fingertips. She wanted to understand. At first, the articles, generally not written for a lay audience, were dauntingly complex. She spent hundreds of hours looking up word after word—trying to break down the language of science. But as she persisted, the languages of science and research began to come together. She began to grasp the meaning of cancer. By the time she turned 14, she began doing significant laboratory research.
Unfortunately, her mom’s cancer came back—motivating Emily to further investigate the reason behind this recurrence. At the time, Emily figured it had something to do with her mom’s inability to prevent the cancer appearing in the first place. Immunotherapy addresses this vulnerability because the immune system is modulated to continuously recognize and fight off cancer. In adaptive cell transfer immunotherapy, tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs), which are white blood cells that identify and destroy tumor cells, are extracted, cultured and infused back to the patient. During processing, however, rapid changes in the tumor can render this treatment ineffective. Emily’s novel solution was to use chemotherapy drugs to inhibit Topoisomerase I inside melanoma cells and cause them to exhibit death-marking molecules on their surface, thus facilitating recognition by TILs. She hopes her synergistic method will reach clinical trials in two to three years.
Emily’s research and science fair experiences have taken her as far as Beijing, China. She was named a finalist in the 2015 Intel Science Talent Search, where her fellow finalists elected her as this year’s Glenn T. Seaborg Award recipient. Beyond cancer research, Emily is passionate about playing the ukulele and is an avid table-tennis player. She loves watching Bollywood movies in her free time in addition to enjoying, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, and teaching her dog new tricks.
Emily plans to attend Rice University in Houston, Texas this fall, majoring in Biochemistry and Cell Biology and minoring in Hindi. She will be continuing her research at MD Anderson Cancer Center with Dr. Patrick Hwu and Dr. Jodi McKenzie. She plans to pursue a PhD, possibly an MD/PhD, in cancer biology and conduct translational research that can be brought to clinical trials. Emily understands the subtle beauty of conducting research in the lab that can help a patient in the room right next door.