As director of the recently opened Gladstone-UCSF Institute of Genomic Immunology, Dr. Alexander Marson is working hard to discover and implement new ways to combat diseases through tailored immune cell therapies. Here, the innovative biologist shares his story.
Did you always want to be a doctor? When I was young, I wanted to be an archaeologist and somehow got introduced to this idea that there were hidden cities under the ground, and that if we knew to look in the right places, we could discover hidden worlds. And later I got interested in medicine. I went to medical school thinking that I was going to see patients full time, and realized that what was actually really exciting to me were the unknown parts. In many ways, I think it was circling back to the thing I was still excited about: Where were the hidden worlds, and what could be uncovered if we knew where to look?
How does living in San Francisco affect your work ? After completing my medical residency in Boston, I came out to look at and visit UCSF, and sensed that there was a San Francisco culture of risk-taking and innovation. I got captivated by the idea that this would be the best next place for me to expand my career. Coming to San Francisco has allowed me to start trying new things and be exposed to new ideas about how genetically engineered cells could treat patients. And there’s the crosstalk between Silicon Valley innovation and entrepreneurial culture, with scientific progress in biology and biomedicine. That all makes San Francisco a special place to push the boundaries of what’s possible with new types of medicines.
Can you tell us a bit about the work you’re doing at the Gladstone-UCSF Institute of Genomic Immunology? We’re focused on this question of how DNA gives specific instructions to cells in the immune system to make them more powerful to treat a wide range of diseases. That is our goal: to replace or insert DNA sequences in immune cells from blood samples to make them better at eliminating cancer or treating autoimmune diseases. We have a broad range of applications where we see opportunities for this new type of medicine. It’s not a pill and it’s not a protein. It’s actually a living, genetically engineered cell that we’ve given specific instructions to treat disease. We hope that these genetically engineered cells can be infused into patients to improve their health.
Is this a relatively new field? We are just beginning to fully imagine what’s possible, how these cell therapies will treat a number of different cancers, infections and autoimmune diseases, and I think in the future, they might even treat other diseases. We’re finding ways that cells can be programmed to go into different organs and have specific functions.
What would you like your legacy to be? The thing that really attracts me to biology is the possibility that careful thought and rigorously designed experiments will open up new truths to us. We’ll not only understand the world better but could use that improved knowledge to treat patients. The three things that I focus on are making discoveries, looking for the opportunities to translate those discoveries into new ways to improve human well-being, and sharing that joy with students. A major area I hope to leave a legacy in is helping to create an environment that fosters collaboration, risk-taking in service of discovery and human health improvements, but one that also fosters training for the next generation that I hope will continue to see rapidly accelerating potential to benefit humanity.
Photography by: PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN FRANCISCO