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Shelley Ackerman

Bolt Biotherapeutics

Immunotherapies have forever changed the treatment of cancer — provided you’re in the minority of patients for whom they work. Shelley Ackerman, a bioengineer by training, pioneered a technology that might help those left out of immuno-oncology’s first wave.

As a Stanford University Ph.D. candidate, Ackerman co-invented a novel approach to treating wily tumors, one designed to ferret out cancerous tissue and then galvanize the immune cells lulled to sleep by cancer’s defenses. Called ISACs, short for immune-stimulating antibody conjugates, the treatments could offer hope for what Ackerman calls “immune deserts,” cancers that have evaded the body’s natural detection system.

“For me, it’s the perfect blend of the technical and the creative, and you really need both.”

“Our goal is essentially to turn cold tumors hot, rejuvenate the immune system, and retrain it to do exactly what it was designed to do: recognize cancer as foreign,” Ackerman said.

Stanford licensed the technology to a startup called Bolt Biotherapeutics, and, in 2018, Ackerman joined the company to help turn her discovery into a usable medicine. Bolt’s lead ISAC is now in a clinical trial enrolling patients with breast, gastric, and other cancers, and the company has more therapies in preclinical development.

Ackerman’s fascination with engineering began not with biology but sound. She was a 12-year-old, conservatory-trained flautist, rehearsing for a performance at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, when she saw the on-staff acoustical engineer tuning panels and tweaking knobs, and suddenly her twin passions of music and science didn’t seem so disparate. She arrived at MIT to follow that engineer’s path, but a freshman biology course, taught by the decorated professors Eric Lander and Robert Weinberg, shifted her focus from decibels to dendritic cells.

“For me, it’s the perfect blend of the technical and the creative, and you really need both,” she said.

— Damian Garde