By Ashley Mooney

The purple area of this brain is a glioblastoma tumor.

Some undergraduates get to see the fruits of their lab labor early in their careers.

Junior Anirudh Saraswathula, a biology major and neuroscience minor, has been doing research at Duke since his first week on campus.

He started as a work-study student in professor of cell biology Blanche Capel’s lab, but said the basic sciences were not his true passion. Now, Saraswathula works on translating basic research with the Duke Brain Tumor Immunotherapy Program.

“A lot of what I do in the lab involves looking at protocols that are used in basic science research and trying to apply them to what we’re doing here,” he said. “So a lot of it is going to be culturing cells from patients, and then doing a variety of tests depending on what it is that I want to do.”

He is currently studying immune-system therapy for glioblastoma, a type of malignant brain tumor. By reprogramming a patient’s T-cells, researchers can direct the immune system to fight glioblastoma. Although Saraswathula was not involved in developing the treatment, he is working to evaluate the treatment’s mechanism and its long-term effects on the immune system.

“One of the reasons that brain tumors are so devastating (with treatment they can extend survival to about 18 months) is that they’re just so recurrent,” he said. “These types of tumors also change who you are as a person because of where they happen.”

Saraswathula’s day-to-day work involves culturing tissue, using flow cytometry — a technique used to sort cells, detect biomarkers and engineer proteins — and PCR, which copies DNA.

Saraswathula is also studying the quality of T-cell responses to different clinical trials and understanding whether certain types of B-cells are repressing the function of the tumor vaccine.

“Those projects are focused on future trials. How can we improve, how can we modify these therapies to better improve the immune system’s response in order to fight these tumors,” he said.

Although he began his research just for the experience of doing it, Saraswathula said that applicability is now what is most important to him.

“If I discover some obscure gene in stem cells, there’s not going to be any real application there for maybe 30 years,” he said. “With my current research, if I find something, [in] the next trial a few years from now, there will be a patient getting the drug, and I would have had a contribution to that.”