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