New Whitehead Fellow seeks to harness the immune system to fight pancreatic cancer
Tobiloba Oni—a cell biologist whose graduate research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory helped open new paths for understanding, detecting, and potential treating pancreatic cancer—has been appointed as a Whitehead Fellow. He will join Whitehead Institute and launch his independent research career in February 2021.
“Tobi brings immense creativity and technical insight to the search for ways to prompt the immune system to more effectively recognize and destroy malignant cells in the microtumor environment,” observes Institute director Ruth Lehmann. “We are so pleased to have him joining our cohort of dynamic, early career investigators.”
Oni, who grew up in Ikare-Akoko, Nigeria, earned a BS in biology in 2011 from State University of New York at Plattsburgh and a PhD in cell and molecular biology in 2020 from Stony Brook University, where he won the institution’s Scholars in Biomedical Science Award. He performed his graduate research with David Tuveson, director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) Cancer Center.
“I was raised in an environment that was all about improving people’s health and having a positive impact on their lives,” Oni says, for whom biomedicine is, excuse the pun, in his genes: his mother is a biology teacher who founded and leads a secondary school in Ikare-Akoko; his father is a general practice physician in the same town; and his older brother is an orthopedic surgeon at Johns Hopkins University. “I am thrilled to have this opportunity to uncover new insights about one of the most challenging human diseases,” he says. “And I’m very much looking forward to collaborating with and learning from world-class researchers like Bob Weinberg and Rick Young, who are pioneering new ways of understanding cancer’s basic functions.”
Oni’s graduate work focused on developing tools for the early detection of pancreatic cancer, and on identifying the mechanisms that drive malignant progression—which can become targets for new therapeutics. At CSHL, he helped develop one of the first mouse and human organoid models of pancreatic cancer and then used those models to identify tumor-specific metabolic vulnerabilities and resistance pathways. He also generated antibodies to abnormal proteins on the cell-surface of tumor cells, which are now being used to develop more effective methods for detecting pancreatic cancer.
At Whitehead Institute, Oni will focus on uncovering mechanisms for the poor anti-tumor immune response to pancreatic cancer, and work to develop novel ways of promoting tumor clearance by immune cells. And—following in his mother’s footsteps—he will pursue opportunities to inspire and mentor the next generation of scientists from diverse backgrounds. “I strongly believe that bringing more perspectives into research—and building collaborative networks across disciplines—will be essential if we are to answer the most challenging biological questions,” Oni says.
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