Featured Researchers

V.K. Gadi, oncologist and clinical researcher

Unraveling the link between fetal cells and cancer

Like his father, the engineer, and his mathematician grandfather, Dr. V.K. Gadi is driven to find answers.

“I see a problem and immediately my brain starts making connections to try to find a solution. That’s just my DNA,” he said.

Gadi is a medical oncologist in the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutch who’s studying how cells exchanged between fetus and mother during pregnancy connect to cancer. This mixing of cells from two distinct individuals – a phenomenon known as microchimerism – could open a door to improved cancer detection and treatment.

Gadi’s focus on microchimerism began after he came to the University of Washington to complete his training and joined the lab of Fred Hutch’s Dr. J. Lee Nelson. Nelson was the first to recognize that some of the cells shared by mother and child during pregnancy persist for decades and play active roles in health and disease.

Nelson found strong links – both beneficial and adverse – between microchimerism and autoimmune diseases such as scleroderma and rheumatoid arthritis. Gadi wondered whether similar links exist between microchimerism and cancer. Working with Nelson and others, he found that low concentrations of certain fetal cells increase the risk of breast cancer in women while very high concentrations raise the risk of colon cancer.

More research is needed to understand the mechanisms behind the link between fetal cells and cancer, but Gadi has a theory.

“We already know that donor blood from a stem cell transplant can help the immune system resist aggressive cancers but can also cause harmful inflammation in some normal tissues,” he said. “Cells that pass from fetus to mother during pregnancy are, in effect, a natural transplant. Perhaps they influence immune system responses in the same way.”

While the mechanisms may not be clear, the potential medical benefits are. Gadi is working with other researchers at Fred Hutch and around the world to learn more about microchimerism and translate that knowledge into cancer-fighting advances. “We believe concentrations of fetal cells could serve as predictors of future disease, and their influence on cancer could be harnessed to develop better treatments,” he said.

Gadi knew early in his medical training at the University of Alabama-Birmingham that he wanted a career that combined caring for patients and research, but it wasn’t until he began his residency that he decided to become an oncologist. He specializes in breast cancer.

“Caring for cancer patients really clicked for me because they are true partners in their treatment,” Gadi said. “Cancer is always changing so you’re constantly working together to determine the next step. I enjoy that.

The satisfaction Gadi gains from helping his patients is matched by the excitement of conducting research at Fred Hutch. “Everyone here has life-changing ideas about how to answer big questions,” he said. “It’s like coming to work at a playground for your brain.”

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