“Imagine harnessing the power of another person’s immune system. We might be able to cure many cancers, including leukemia. But for now, it’s impossible to predict the effect of foreign immune cells in the body of a cancer patient.”
Jason T. George, a fourth-year graduate student in bioengineering (BIOE) at Rice University, is speaking at a high level of speculative abstraction but with cautious enthusiasm. He and his colleagues in the lab of his adviser, Herbert Levine, Hasselmann Professor of Bioengineering at Rice and co-director of the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, are taking the incremental steps toward realizing cures for cancer using bone-marrow transplants.
“Our project proposes to develop a model of the battle between cancer cells and donor immune cells,” George said. “We want to be able to predict the effects of immune therapy on the patient before treatment.”
George is enrolled in the Rice-Baylor Medical Program and is pursuing a dual-degree: an M.D. and a Ph.D. in BIOE. He earned a B.S. in biomedical engineering and a B.A. in mathematics from Texas A&M University in 2012, and spent the next two years at Baylor.
In September, George was the lead author of a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Effects of thymic selection on T cell recognition of foreign and tumor antigenic peptides.” His co-authors were Levine and David A. Kessler, professor of physics at Bar-Ilan University in Jerusalem.
“This was a great honor, working with researchers of this distinction,” George said. “As busy as he is, Prof. Levine will drop everything and have a real discussion with you. He values the process of questioning in his students. He encourages collegiality,” George said
George’s research received a boost earlier this year when he received more than $48,000 in funding for his application, “Co-Evolution of the CD8+ T Cell Repertoire and AML in the Setting of Immunotherapy,” from the NIH’s National Cancer Institute.
Born in Michigan, George grew up in Ohio, Iowa and Texas, following the academic postings of his father, Thomas George, who is now the C.T. Bauer Professor of Finance at the University of Houston.
“I’ve always liked the idea of teaching, the exchange of ideas. I’ve learned a lot about teaching from my professors at Rice, including Richard Tapia [University Professor in computational and applied mathematics], who really cares about his students,” said George, who in October, received the Graduate Teaching Assistant Award for Excellence in Student Support from Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence.
He expects to graduate from Rice in 2019 and from Baylor in 2020. As a result of his interests and education, George will find himself in the position of balancing three disciplines, all equally important to him: teaching, research and medical practice. Already he sees patients at the San Jose Clinic in Houston.
“I want to see patients and I also want to teach and do research,” George said. “Can we transplant an immune system from one person to another, and can it co-evolve with a tumor? The theory is so addictive, and fun, and hard.”