SPS Applied Science & Engineering Program facilitates the work of Isabella Pargiolas ’21 in testing a new way to treat cancer.
In April, scientists from Exuma Biotech met with the Food and Drug Administration to present the latest data on their new method for delivering chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell immunotherapy to cancer patients far more quickly and easily than ever before.
Among the data Exuma presented to the FDA were the results of months of lab tests performed by Isabella “Isa” Pargiolas ’21, who completed an externship in the summer of 2020 with the clinical-stage biotechnology company as part of the Applied Science & Engineering Program (ASEP) at St. Paul’s School.
“My work is a much smaller piece of the big picture,” Pargiolas says about her contribution to the FDA meeting.
But Sarah Boylan, director of the ASEP, is clear about just how big a deal it is. “This has serious promise for future cancer therapies,” she says. “[Exuma’s] hope is that, in the next decade, they’ll be approved in the United States for this immunotherapy technique that Isa’s work will actually have an impact on.”
In addition to her externship, Pargiolas worked with Exuma throughout her Sixth Form year, both on campus and during periods of remote learning at home in West Palm Beach, Florida, where the international company is headquartered. CAR T-cell therapy is based on using deactivated viruses to create specially engineered T cells — the white blood cells that work to fight infection in the body — that can attach to and kill cancerous cells. Much of Pargiolas’s work for Exuma is based on testing that viral delivery system.
Among the advancements CAR T-cell therapy offers is that it can be more targeted than traditional chemotherapy and radiation treatments and can cause fewer side effects. While the current process can take two weeks or more, Exuma hopes its rapid point-of-care (rPOC) platform will eventually allow doctors to administer CAR T-cell therapy to patients without pretreatment with chemotherapy or long waits.
Pargiolas’s research adventures with Exuma began as a Fifth Former, when ASEP students research and apply for externships in their chosen fields — ranging from computer science and engineering to astronomy and biology. From taking Boylan’s class in molecular biology, Pargiolas knew she was intereted in cancer biology.
“After doing a lot of research on Exuma and what they do, I was super enthusiastic,” she says. She spent that spring reading up on the company and learning about immunotherapy during the ASEP Seminar.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Pargiolas was able to work at the Exuma lab in West Palm Beach for much of August 2020. With limited personnel on site due to quarantine restrictions, she benefited from the one-on-one mentorship she received from Dr. Ewa Jaruga-Killeen. “She would give me a paper and say, ‘OK, you’re going to read this paper and then we’re going to try and run an assay to figure out X, Y, [or] Z tomorrow,’” Pargiolas says, noting that she found the opportunity to work alongside experienced researchers to be meaningful — and also fun.
As part of her capstone project, which every ASEP student completes in their Sixth Form year, Pargiolas tested samples she received from Exuma, using the state-of-the-art laboratory equipment at SPS. This included a quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) machine, which tests the amounts of DNA or RNA present in cells. With the qPCR machine, Pargiolas can study how T cells react when injected with the deactivated virus.
Boylan believes SPS is one of just a few high schools in the country with access to a qPCR machine, an instrumental research device that is also used by labs to administer tests for COVID-19 and other diagnostic procedures.
“Our students are fortunate to have access to cutting-edge technology in our molecular biology laboratory,” Boylan says. “Not only do they have the ability to grow and manipulate human samples in our cell culture room, they can begin to examine what is happening inside the cell on the molecular level. Using our plate reader and qPCR machine, students can quantify expression of a gene, determine immune response to a pathogen, practice running a diagnostic test for SARS-CoV-2, and much more. These resources allow our students to have a world-class biological education and give them a window into scientific research that is rare at the high school level. Our students arrive at college well prepared.”
Pargiolas will attend the University of Pennsylvania, where she plans to continue her biological research, focusing on molecular and cell biology. Working at Exuma and completing the ASEP has piqued her interest in private-sector lab work, and she hopes to take courses at the Wharton School to educate herself on the business of scientific research.
To aid future ASEP students, Pargiolas has been developing a protocol they can follow when using the qPCR machine for their own research. Pargiolas’s work, Boylan adds, “really demonstrates her proficiency in troubleshooting … and her ability to make changes and get better results.”
One of Pargiolas’s favorite parts of the ASEP has been the opportunity to collaborate with her peers, many of whom have pursued scientific interests quite different from her own. During their capstone projects, each student was required to present their work to classmates, prompting them to refine their ideas and answer questions from a peer group unfamiliar with the nuances of their subject matter. In the process, Pargiolas learned something about computer science and robotics, while honing her own experience, which will undoubtedly serve her well in her career ahead.
“Having to explain exactly what I was doing was challenging, but very helpful,” she says. “The hardest part of science is not necessarily doing it, but being able to explain it and present it in ways that are understandable to others.”