Foot soldiers in the War Against Cancer: Hanna Starobinets Joins Real Scientists

We bid a fond farewell to Dr Adam Summers, the flying Fish Guy and his marvellous biomechanics.  We’re heading over to California, USA, now to meet our next curator, Hanna Starobinets (@hannastarobin), a PhD student in cancer research at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) . 

It’s been 60 years since the US government declared War on Cancer, a call echoed around the world; a war that continues today.  Over the course of the last 60 years, we’ve learned about how this terrible disease comes about – and in doing so, many astonishing things about how normal cells grow. For a cancer to happen, scientists found that a number of genetic processes have to go wrong for this uncontrolled growth to occur. But something else that’s emerged is how cells interact with each other in cancers, and how cancerous cells interact with their environment.  It’s these interactions and the tumour environment, or rather, microenvironment, that Hanna studies.  To learn more, here’s Hanna, and her work, in her own words:


My mom is a biologist, so when I was growing up, all my bath toys were lab plastics. Eppendorf tubes, conical tubes, foam floaties, you name it. During school vacations and snow days she’d bring me to lab and let me draw cells on culture dishes with a sharpie and feed them with real media. By the age of five, I had decided to be a biologist when I grew up. When I eventually took biology in school, I found that I had an intuition for it, so that confirmed my path and I’ve never looked back.

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Within biology, cancer research captured my imagination pretty early on. As a widespread and high profile disease, I was aware of it and also knew people who died of it. So, early on, I wanted my contribution to biology to be one applied to human disease. What drives me to stay in cancer research is the whole-body complexity of the disease. The interactions between cancer cells, local blood vessels and immune cells, distant tissues and organs and whole-body communication systems, is like a million-piece puzzle that is both terrifying and fascinating.


I study the tumor microenvironment, which is everything in a solid tumor that isn’t the cancer cells themselves. Cancer cells hijack everything around them to help them grow and migrate, and understanding the contribution of these interactions to patient treatment and survival has led to major breakthroughs for many types of cancer. Specifically, I’m interested in the immune cells and blood vessels inside breast tumors and melanomas.

The field I’m in has led to many exciting therapies, most notably the exciting immunotherapies (which unleash the wrath of the immune system to destroy tumors, especially successful in melanomas). Immunotherapy is still in its early days but already is producing unprecedented long-term survival for patients who used to have a death sentence. There’s still a lot of work to be done to understand the way tumors and the immune system interact, and these studies will hopefully help to develop immunotherapies that work for every cancer.


I write science news articles for The Synapse, UCSF’s student newspaper. I am also an annual judge at the San Francisco Bay Area Science Fair, a regional fair for 7th to 12th graders from five local counties, and I volunteer with the Bay Area Science Festival.

I love the mountains. I’ve been hiking in the summers and skiing in the winters for my entire life.

How would you describe your ideal day off? (Scientists are people too!)

Hiking up to a waterfall with my husband, then eating at a delicious restaurant in our hiking clothes on the drive home.


Please welcome Hanna to Real Scientists!

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