Spotlight on Folashade Otegbeye

Bringing Rigor to Cellular Therapies for Cancer

Folashade Otegbeye, Transplant Specialist and Facility Director of the Therapeutic Products Shared Resource

A physician-researcher who specializes in blood stem cell transplantation, Dr. Folashade Otegbeye holds a deeply important role at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.

As facility director for the Therapeutic Products shared resource, she is responsible for maintaining the highest quality standards at the laboratory where patients' blood cells are genetically modified and prepared for reinfusion as part of early clinical trials of new immunotherapies.

It is a skill she honed doing similar work as medical director for the Cellular Therapy Laboratory at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, part of the medical school at Case Western Reserve University.

In the tightly controlled environment of such facilities, experimental cellular products aimed at curing difficult-to-treat blood cancers or solid tumors are prepared under rigorous, Good Manufacturing Practice requirements of the Food and Drug Administration — legal requirements to ensure that what is made there is safe and pure.

When she joined the Hutch in October 2021, there were 13 such trials underway involving dozens of patients. That number is increasing as ever more candidate immunotherapies in testing move from the laboratory bench to the patient bedside.

“In blood cancer transplantation, we have a lot of ongoing, frequent interactions with patients and their family members or caregivers. I’ve always been inspired, and touched, by those relationships,” Otegbeye said.

Dr. Otegbeye sitting in front of her computer
Dr. Folashade Otegbeye is a blood stem cell transplant physician and director of the Hutch’s Therapeutic Products shared resource. Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Known to her colleagues as Shade (SHAH’-day), the Nigerian-born physician applies the same sort of rigor and attention to detail required in the manufacture of cellular products to her work with patients and to her research in the laboratory.

“Shade is the colleague I would call to brainstorm challenging cases, and I would trust her to take care of my loved ones,” said Hutch transplant physician-researcher Dr. Masumi Ueda Oshima who met Otegbeye during a training fellowship in hematology and oncology at Case Western, where they became fast friends. 

“She is like a sister to me, and now that we are living in the same city, I look forward to growing older and wiser with her in life and in academia at the Hutch,” Ueda said.

Although most of the cellular immunotherapy research focuses on T cells, a type of white blood cell that the immune system uses to attack foreign cells and threats such as cancer, Otegbeye’s own research centers on another component of the immune system: natural killer, or NK, cells.

Unlike T cells, which learn to identify and bind to telltale proteins known as antigens on the surface of infected or cancerous cells, NK cells stand out as a more primitive form of immune defense. Primed to detect certain molecules exhibited by cells under stress, NK cells are important parts of “innate” immunity, whose capacities to defend the body are biologically ancient, hardwired in genes.

As such, they are not trained like T cells or antibodies to attack cancer cells; they are less specialized, front-line responders that can track down and eliminate any cells experiencing stress. However, they can be genetically modified to fine-tune their stress-detecting mechanisms, and Otegbeye is working on ways to apply that response more specifically to tumors.

“In blood cancer transplantation, we have a lot of ongoing, frequent interactions with patients and their family members or caregivers. I’ve always been inspired, and touched, by those relationships."

Her journey to the highly specialized laboratories at Fred Hutch began during her high school years in Zaria, a city in northern Nigeria that is home to Ahmadu Bello University, where her father was a plant geneticist who worked on tree breeding. She acquired a knack for biology from her family ties to plants.

“I’ve always very connected with agriculture,” she said. “When we were kids, we all had to have our own private plots of land, just to grow things.” With her dad, she tended crops of corn, soybeans, rice and tomatoes.

Otegbeye enjoyed creative writing as a student, but in the academic circles where she was raised, career choices after high school were limited to medicine, engineering or accounting. She chose medicine.

It was during her medical training and practice in Nigeria that she grew frustrated by the inability to treat patients effectively for cancers like Burkitt lymphoma, despite the existence of therapies in wealthier countries that can cure the disease in many young patients.

“We understood the theory of the disease, but many times we were not able to treat it,” she said.

Her interest in access to care eventually brought to Boston, where she earned a master’s from the Harvard School of Public Health. Then came a stint at a Yale-affiliated hospital in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which led to her blood cancer fellowship in Cleveland, then to her career in transplant medicine.

In her free time, she writes short stories and poems. She self-published for her friends a book of poetry she called The Doodle, “because it feels like a lot of the pieces are still in doodle form,” she said.

She also relishes the outdoors, enjoying the lush green forests and the hiking trials that lace through the Cascade Range. When Otegbeye decided to take a new job in Seattle, her friends and colleagues in Cleveland cautioned her about Seattle’s famous rains.

Undeterred, she told them of a maxim from Nigeria: “As we say in Yoruba, ‘As long as you’re not salt, you can’t be bothered by water.’”

— Updated October 5, 2023


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