How Does The Immune System’s ‘Memory’ Influence Cancer Susceptibility?


Indian-born scientist Shruti Naik is working to spot the factors in the human immune system that allow early cancer cells take root and searching for early-intervention treatments that could stop tumors in their tracks.

Naik, a 2019 V Scholar and Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at the NYU Langone Medical Center, with a doctorate in immunology, says there is a strong link between cancer and inflammation and many cancer develop at sites of active inflammation, infection or irritation, with inflammation being directly linked to at least 20% of all cancers.

“Until recently, most research had focused on studying inflammation within tumors, but our work on memory of inflammation in skin stem cells prompted us to ask: what happens after inflammation has resolved?” she says.

Naik says that her group focuses on studying the the role of inflammatory memory in tumorigenesis, that is, the initial formation of a tumor in the body; and aiming to develop early interventions to stop devastating cancers.

“We are asking how does inflammatory memory influence the tissue’s cancer susceptibility,” she says.

Naik obtained her undergraduate degree in cell and molecular biology from the University of Maryland and then spent two years studying wound repair at the Naval Medical Research Center in Maryland, USA, where she was inspired to pursue a University of Pennsylvania- National Institutes of Health PhD program in Immunology.

“My dissertation research uncovered a new role for normal bacterial living on our skin, called the commensal microbiota, in educating the immune system to fight disease causing microbes,” she says, adding that she then pursued her postdoctoral training as a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Fellow at the Rockefeller University in New York City.

“There I uncovered that the skin’s stem cells, or key building blocks, can sense, respond to, and remember inflammation,” she says, “Remarkably, inflammatory memory teaches skin’s stem cells to repair tissues faster and in 2018 I started my independent research lab to understand how memory of inflammation impacts a tissue’s cancer susceptibility.” 

Potential Comedian Turns to Science

Naik was born about 100 miles south of Mumbai, India, in the city of Pune, moving around the country before immigrating to the suburbs of Washington DC, USA at the age of 12.

“I’ve moved around quite a bit and often felt like an outsider as a child,” she says, “This sense of ‘otherness’ and my experience as an immigrant to the United States of America, has empowered me to use out-of-the-box strategies to solve complex biological programs.”

But Naik says she was not interested in the sciences growing up.

“In fact, I did not consider myself to be smart or academically oriented, I wanted to be a stand-up comic,” she says, adding that all changed when one day she saw prominent microbiologist Dr. Bonnie Bassler on television discussing glow in the dark bacteria.

“I was immediately captivated and decided to take a microbiology class…. I’ve been hooked on science ever since.”

Outsider Advantage

Naik says being from the Global South and growing up in a developing country, allowed her to bear witness to the catastrophic impact of chronic disease on human health.

“Discovery demands diversity and people from all walks of life with unique lived experiences bring fresh perspectives to biology,” she says, “Ultimately, this involves people from all over the world working in unison to battle insidious diseases like cancer.”

Naik says that cures for chronic conditions, including cancer, start with innovation in the lab.

“Being an outsider has allowed me to take an interdisciplinary approach to discovery science,” she says, “I am attracted to questions that stray from the mainstream and constantly seek approaches from disciplines outside my purview… being an outsider empowered me to take the path less traveled and tackle challenges that may otherwise go unnoticed and unaddressed.”

Another cancer researcher from the Global South is Professor Olufunmilayo Olopade.

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