Meet the Diversity & Inclusion Award Winners

Toni Gray - March 07, 2022

Learn more about our 2021 winners of the Underrepresented Population Fellowship Award and the Award for Research on Conditions Disproportionately Affecting Minorities.

Renee Cottle, PhD, received the 2021 Underrepresented Population Fellowship Award in Gene and Cell Therapy. We share her journey as a scientist in moving diversity, equity, and inclusion in the field of metabolic diseases.  

Mohamed Abou-el-Enein, MD, PhD, MSPH, received the 2021 Award for Research on Conditions Disproportionately Affecting Minorities. We share his journey as a scientist in moving diversity, equity, and inclusion in chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR T cells).  

What is your current role and institution?  

RC: I serve as an assistant professor in the department of bioengineering at Clemson University in South Carolina. 

MA: I serve as the associate professor of medicine (clinical scholar), pediatrics and stem cell biology & regenerative medicine. I also am the executive director for the joint USC/CHLA cell therapy program and director of the newly established cGMP facility at the Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, as well as a member of the Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. 

What is your research focus related to the award and the overall outcomes of your project? 

RC: My project investigates the feasibility of using nonviral delivery methods for introducing CRISPR-Cas9 into primary hepatocytes ex vivo as a novel therapeutic strategy for inherited metabolic diseases affecting the liver. I am directly comparing adeno-associated viral vectors to nonviral methods: lipid nanoparticles and electroporation for gene editing hepatocytes. In addition, I am evaluating the engraftment and selection of edited hepatocytes in the liver using transient administration of Tylenol.  

Successful completion of my studies will lay the foundation for gene editing in hepatocytes ex vivo using nontraditional methods combined with Tylenol selection in vivo as a liver-directed gene therapy approach. 

MA: My research focuses on improving the design of chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR T cells) to effectively target diverse solid tumors while facilitating off-the-shelf administration through development of allogenic CAR T-cell therapy. One of the indications I am focusing on is colorectal cancer (CRC), which is the third most common cancer in the United States (U.S.). In CRC, there are profound differences in the incidence and mortality rates among specific racial and ethnic groups. Studies conducted using cancer registry data, such as SEER, have reported on disparities in CRC mortality, and demonstrate that Hispanic/Latino (H/L) patients have up to 20% higher mortality than Non-Hispanic White (NHW) patients. Similarly, CRC has higher incidence (>20%) and higher mortality (>35%) rates in African Americans (AA) compared to other ethnic group in the U.S. This alarming status quo calls for the development of novel therapeutic interventions that can be more widely available to close the disparity gap. Our overall outcome is to develop an off-the-shelf allogeneic CAR T-cell therapy with enhanced persistence & efficacy against colorectal carcinoma. We anticipate that this therapeutic approach will be safe and yield durable clinical responses in CRC patients due to our CAR T cells being designed to evade immune rejection and the inhibitory effects of the tumor microenvironment. The allogeneic nature of the product is also expected to overcome key constraints of current autologous CAR T-cell therapies in that a large number of patients can be treated from a single apheresis blood collection of healthy donor-derived T cells. 

What drives your passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion in your area of influence? 

RC: As an African American female in science, I am passionate about being a role model who will inspire people from all races, backgrounds, and places of origin to enter STEM fields, particularly biomedical engineering. Throughout my education, I saw very few examples of scientists who look like me. My mother always encouraged me to be the role model that I wished that I had at a young age. My hope is that when young people see what I have achieved, they will have the courage to dream big and reach their goals. 

My hope is that when young people see what I have achieved, they will have the courage to dream big and reach their goals. 

Renee Cottle, PhD

MA: On a personal level, I have a long-standing interest in addressing the translational barriers for gene and cell therapies targeting diseases that mostly affect minorities, such as HIV/AIDS and certain types of cancers. This interest stems from my strong expertise in translating scientific and technological advances to society and a degree in public health addressing healthcare access to immigrants and underserved populations. On the institutional level, University of Southern California and the Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center (NCCC) have been at the forefront of conducting rigorous research to generate evidence-based best practices for optimizing H/L and AA patient engagement and empowerment in cancer research. For instance, the NCCC has established the community outreach and engagement (COE) program to inform best practices for educating, consenting, enrolling, and retaining minorities in cancer studies. For all these reasons, I have a genuine drive and a sense of responsibility to join forces in curbing cancer disparities while developing effective therapeutic approaches for cancer patients. 

What is your hope for gene and cell therapy in increasing diversity amongst research and health sciences? 

RC: I hope the ASGCT community will continue to invest in promising underrepresented researchers from all stages in their career development. I am hopeful that over time, we will see more diversity at ASGCT meetings and on the executive team. 

MA: My hope is to increase awareness and take meaningful actions within the scientific community toward racial and ethnic diversity in gene and cell therapy research. A simple but probably an effective approach, which we are going to adopt for our project in later preclinical development, is to employ patient-derived xenograft (PDX) mouse models established from racial/ethnic minorities' cancer cell lines for CAR T-cell testing. We are also witnessing an evident lack of recruiting ethnic minority patients into cancer CAR T-cell therapy clinical trials. This may not yield the most accurate information about treatment outcomes once the therapy is utilized in broader patient populations. Given the great potential of CAR T-cell immunotherapy, the scientific community should exert more efforts to balance racial representation in oncology trials in general, and CAR T-cell trials in particular. We see impactful research and funding mechanisms being dedicated to this important cause and I hope we will see significant changes soon. 

Given the great potential of CAR T-cell immunotherapy, the scientific community should exert more efforts to balance racial representation in oncology trials in general, and CAR T-cell trials in particular.

Mohamed Abou-el-Enein, MD, PhD, MSPH

Please express anything else you'd like to share with the ASGCT family.  

RC: I desire to express my heartfelt appreciation for being selected to receive the prestigious ASGCT Underrepresented Population Fellowship Award in Gene and Cell Therapy. As an early-stage investigator, I am tremendously honored for this timely support that will enable me to make impactful research contributions in the gene therapy field. I feel enormous gratitude to the Society and its donors for their generous support. 

MA: I would like to personally thank ASGCT and ASGCT’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee for their leadership and vision in addressing diversity in gene and cell therapy research. This award will enable us to create proof of concept and generate necessary pilot feasibility data for our CAR T-cell therapy approach in CRC before we move to next stages of preclinical and clinical translation.

Tony Gray is ASGCT's Program Manager for Professional Development and Diversity and the staff liaison to the Diversity and Inclusion Committee.