Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Asaf Maoz
Asaf Maoz is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Valhalla Fellow Kipp Weiskopf’s lab studying new immunotherapy strategies to treat cancer. He is also a clinical fellow in medical oncology at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Mass General Hospital. We sat down with Asaf to learn more about him and his experiences in and out of the lab.
What are you investigating?
Kipp has done seminal work in showing that macrophages, which are immune cells, can be targeted for cancer immunotherapy. Specifically, he showed that cancer cells express a “don’t eat me signal” that prevents macrophages from engulfing and killing them. He also showed that when the “don’t eat me signal” is blocked, macrophages can restrict tumor growth. That work has led to clinical trials that are in the advanced stages now, which is very exciting. His lab is now working on advancing macrophage-based cancer immunotherapy to the next level. My work is centered around how we can use cytokines, which are signaling proteins that can regulate immune responses, for macrophage-based cancer immunotherapy. We’re also working on developing fusion proteins that could combine the action of cytokines with other active components like immune checkpoints or tumor-targeting antibodies. One issue with cytokine therapies in the past has been toxicity, so if we can direct them to the tumor microenvironment, they should work more efficiently and have fewer side effects elsewhere. Our hope is to ultimately develop this approach into a portfolio of drugs that may help cancer patients.
What do you do as a physician?
In fellowship, I see patients with gastrointestinal cancers and individuals with suspected or confirmed hereditary cancer syndromes. That second part of my job is maybe less familiar to the general public - we see individuals who either have a genetic predisposition to cancer, or have a history that is concerning for hereditary predisposition to cancer. We care for those individuals through the process of testing them to see if there's a known genetic predisposition to cancer, and counseling them about risk and risk reduction, with the ultimate goal of cancer prevention.
What led you to a career in medicine and research?
When I started medical school, I felt that all I wanted to do was see patients. I just want to help people out and be there for them. Whenever I had to study something, I was always thinking about the patient I could help by having that knowledge, and that thought was what got me through medical school. Then when I got to internship -- I did medical school in Israel, where you have to do an internship as part of it -- I was on the internal medicine wards, and I saw a fair number of patients coming in with late-stage cancer with unfavorable prognoses. Some of them died during their stay in the hospital, having been diagnosed just a few weeks earlier. We didn't have a lot to offer them. I was always interested in research, but that's when I understood that a lot of the progress in helping patients is going to be through going back to the basics to understand new mechanisms of disease. I knew that, although I do love seeing patients, I also wanted to go back to the lab and help as much as I can to advance science so that when I ultimately go back and see patients, they're in a better spot and we can offer them more.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I hope that in ten years, I'm at Dana Farber leading efforts to prevent cancer by leveraging the immune system, and to detect cancer early among patients with high risk. My dream would be to need to look for a different job because the community has already solved everything and there are no more cancer patients, but if that doesn't happen, I see myself at the Farber.
What’s a favorite memory from your time at Whitehead Institute so far?
The lab has done so many fun things together. Kipp got us a suite at a Red Sox game and everyone came with their families or friends. We had a cookout at Kipp’s house as a sort of goodbye party when the first tech in the lab went to his next position. It’s also really fun being part of the larger family of cancer research labs at Whitehead Institute: going to [Whitehead Institute Founding Member] Bob Weinberg’s house in New Hampshire every summer where we hike and talk and explore that area has been great.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
I don’t have a lot of free time, but I really like playing basketball. I also used to do a lot of Lindy Hop dancing. I love traveling and I love languages. I’ve spent a good amount of time backpacking. For example, before medical school, I spent a year backpacking in Latin America and then a few months backpacking in China.
How did you get into Lindy Hop?
I think I tried it once when I was in a student exchange program in New York, when I was still in medical school. It was really fun, but I went back home to Israel and did not continue. Then I moved to LA and there were two places near me that taught and had dances, and the scene was huge. So I got into it and it's just a super fun dance. The music is really fun, the people are very friendly. There is a good scene in Boston for whoever’s interested; it's a really nice dance and it's good for exercise too.
How many languages do you speak?
It depends. I speak four languages well: English, Hebrew, German, and Spanish. Those are languages I either work in, or have done some of my life in, or have taken proficiency tests in. In my work, the most relevant one is Spanish; I’m a certified bilingual provider. Then I dabble in a few other languages where I can get by fine like French, Portuguese, and Catalan. There are a few languages where I can have a simple conversation, like Arabic and Russian. And I have fun trying to say a few words in Mandarin, but I can't say a lot.
What appeals to you about languages?
I feel that a language is like a portal to a new life and a new world. People communicate differently in their own language and there are different concepts, different ideas, and even different feelings that you can experience when you speak a different language. I think that to some degree you adapt some of that into your personality when you're speaking that language, so I feel it's almost an opportunity to get to know another aspect of life. Also, you get to know people in a way that I don't think you can know them otherwise, especially if you travel a lot.
Practicing medicine is your primary focus, but what do you enjoy about doing research?
I like the fact that you have the amazing freedom to pursue ideas that you're passionate about. In clinical medicine, you're dealing with people, so you have to do what is shown to be safe and effective. You can’t just try something because you think it’s a great idea, or it’s cool, or it might work; there are boundaries that you are confined to for good reason. The lab is the total opposite. If you think that something wild is going to work, if you have this totally crazy idea, you can do it—obviously in a responsible, thoughtful way. I also like the fact that you can test things in a way that is systematic and methodical, because in medicine there is so much variability that you cannot account for. Every patient, and every disease, is a bit different, so it’s often hard to draw definite conclusions about causation. I think the lab is really a fun place to explore new ideas and to do that in a rigorous way.
Additionally, what I love about the work we are doing at Whitehead Institute, and specifically in Kipp’s lab, is that I feel that these are the things that we're going to be using in medicine in ten or twenty years. Kipp is working on things that are novel; he has great ideas and he thinks big. A lot of what we do in medicine today came out of work done in labs a couple of decades ago, and I really do feel that the work we’re doing in the lab now has the potential to change the therapeutic field and cancer immunotherapy.
Finally, one of the things I enjoy most is that we have a fun and supportive group, and that Kipp is an incredibly supportive mentor. The Weiskopf lab is as fun as it is exciting scientifically, from my perspective.
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