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Amorette Barber

Building Better Cancer Fighters

Dr. Amorette Barber takes it to the cellular level in her battle for a better cancer treatment

As a tumor immunologist, Dr. Barber tries to meld immunology with treatment for cancer. Her mission? Understanding what's happening inside immune cells - which ultimately will help scientists develop better treatments.

"Cancer is currently the second leading cause of death in the United States, and most of the cancer therapies out there right now have negative side effects," said Dr. Barber. "Chemotherapy and radiology don't discriminate between cancerous and healthy tissue. It would be better to get the immune system to target the cancer cells while leaving healthy tissue alone."

One of Longwood's newest faculty members, Dr. Barber brings her interest in cancer treatment with her from Dartmouth College, where she studied receptors - proteins on the surface of an immune cell that actually interact with cancer cells. When the immune cell comes in contact with a cancer cell, the receptors send messages to the immune cell to tell it what to do. Ideally, the receptors should tell the immune cell to kill the cancer cell - and Dr. Barber and her team found one that did just that.

"There are so many different types of immune cells," Dr. Barber said. "Some cells are good at recognizing cancer cells but are not good at killing them. Others are good at killing cancer cells, but they are not good at recognizing them."

Dr. Barber and her team took a receptor from one cell and put it on another to create an immune cell that can both recognize and kill cancer cells. Even better, it's able to recognize more than 80 percent of cancer types, including lymphoma and ovarian, pancreatic, lung, breast and colon cancers. Therapy using this receptor will go into clinical trials soon.

At Longwood, Dr. Barber continues to pursue this area, focusing her research on different receptors and their benefits. She will work to identify other receptors with different anti-cancer functions that immunologists can use. In addition, she hopes to understand better the signals that receptors send. Research, however, is only one element of Dr. Barber's life on campus.

"Professors at Longwood love their research, but it's also another way to get students involved and engaged," she said. "The students here are so interested and excited, and the professors are so collaborative and helpful. I really love the atmosphere. Longwood allows me great balance between my two passions, teaching and research."

Next semester, Dr. Barber will maintain that balance by bringing students into the lab to assist with research. She reports that they are eager to begin studying and making their own receptors.

"The best part about teaching is passing on the passion for science to the next generation. I enjoy sharing that passion, not just experiencing it alone in a lab. I love that 'Eureka!' moment when you're working through a problem with a student and they really get it."