Arjun Kumar

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Arjun Kumar: the making of a young scientist

A ‘transformative’ talk at Fred Hutch on curing HIV set a then 14-year-old on a path from community volunteer to lab intern

photo of Arjun Kumar

Stanford University sophomore Arjun Kumar spent the summer as an intern in Dr. Keith Jerome's lab at Fred Hutch. He worked on ways to make sure that cell and gene therapies developed for HIV get to the right cells in the body: the type of T cell (a part of the immune system) that HIV targets.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Sept. 3, 2017  | By Arjun Kumar, as told to Mary Engel

Arjun Kumar was a freshman at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Washington, when he attended a 2013 talk by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center's Dr. Hans-Peter Kiem, co-director with Dr. Keith Jerome of the defeatHIV research group. Kiem talked about cell and gene therapy approaches to curing HIV as part of Fred Hutch’s Science for Life series — a title that aptly describes its influence on Kumar, now 19 and starting his sophomore year at Stanford University.

My parents were deeply supportive of my pursuing any interest that I wanted to. When I was obsessed with "The Lord of the Rings," I got an atlas of Middle Earth and memorized it. I got really absorbed in Harry Potter.

It was not until my freshman year of high school when I attended a Science for Life lecture that I first became aware of what was happening in the biomedical world. I didn’t really enjoy my biology classes before then because they didn’t necessarily feel very applied — until I got to the Hutch and saw Dr. Hans-Peter Kiem.

Dr. Kiem’s talk was transformative for me. I had no idea you could do all this really cool stuff in biology. I’ve always been really drawn to complex problems that have elegant solutions, and gene therapy represented the pinnacle of that.

As my mom was driving me home, I was excitedly telling her about all the things I learned. I was eager to learn more.

I started to attend community events. That spring I attended one where Timothy Ray Brown [the only person known to be cured of HIV] came, as well as Dr. Kiem and Dr. Keith Jerome. Hearing Timothy’s story about how he was cured of both cancer and HIV at once — that really, really fascinated me. By my sophomore year I was dead set on majoring in bioengineering at Stanford, going on to pursue an M.D.- Ph.D. and then pursuing HIV gene therapy.

‘Research has to start with empathy’

I was a member of the defeatHIV community advisory board, or CAB, from January 2014 — the winter of my sophomore year — through the end of high school. I was the youngest person on the CAB.

The thing that first drew me to HIV was the intellectual side of it. But through defeatHIV, I met so many people who were living with HIV and were interested in helping in any way they can. Having that grounding — that these are real people with real lives — was very important for me. Research has to start with empathy.

At a lot of the CAB meetings, we’d go over clinical trial protocols to see if the people who are most affected by HIV are well represented. Learning to think in a way that doesn’t leave out marginalized groups was a cool experience. Now whenever I think about gene therapy, I’m always thinking about whether or not it’s actually going to help patients. Having that experience early on was very helpful.

My first step in starting research was job shadowing at the Hutch. In high school, I took an anatomy-physiology class, and we were required to do a job shadow. Most of my classmates stayed close to home, but I reached out and ended up shadowing the HIV Vaccine Trial Network’s laboratory at the Hutch. Stepping inside of a lab for the first time was exciting — this is where all the research happens. It had that sense of wonder! The cool thing about the HVTN lab is I got to see the entire processing chain of a sample, from initial processing to storage in a repository to the analysis.

I job-shadowed a couple of times for a week at a time after school. My mom was great to drive me. When a break came, I decided to do additional job shadowing. I talked with Dr. Kiem and Dr. Jerome. I got to see the actual labs from the original talk that had inspired me.

I couldn’t work with viruses in the lab because I was a high school student. But I resolved to learn to be a competent lab worker during high school to prepare for working with HIV once I graduated.

Support from the HIV community

I also attended the Cell & Gene Therapy for HIV Cure conferences [held at Fred Hutch]. I met Dr. Matt Porteus from Stanford at the conference in 2015. He was one of the plenary speakers. I absolutely loved his talk. I worked for him after graduating from high school. He was generous enough to find funding for me to move to California for the summer before college started. I got to work on gene therapy for the first time.

Gene therapy has seen some great breakthroughs in precise gene editing with new technologies like CRISPR/Cas9, but accurately delivering these technologies to the right cells is still a challenge. So in Dr. Jerome’s lab this summer, I worked on engineering adeno-associated virus vectors to express a designed ankyrin repeat protein, or DARPin  — a synthetic protein that can be engineered to bind to T cells, like an antibody would — allowing us to target our vectors to the T cells vulnerable to HIV. These DARPin-carrying viral vectors would deliver a CRISPR/Cas9 “payload” with greater specificity to the T cells that we’re trying to modify.

The project gave me a great chance to work with DNA, bacteria, human cells and viruses. I’d wanted to work with viruses ever since early high school, so it was an exciting opportunity for me!

A lot of kids in my high school class weren’t necessarily as lucky as I was in finding so early what their interests are. Having that early interest in HIV and gene therapy was a big help. So was having a huge amount of support from everyone in the Seattle HIV community. A lot of people were happy to find a high school student interested in their work. Having that outpouring of support and having supportive parents made it easier for me. 

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