An assistant professor of Biomedical Genetics, Bajaj spent many days as a 20-something graduate student sitting outside government hospital clinics in India collecting tissue samples from impoverished cancer patients who were in pain, with little hope, in the late stages of the disease. They were often women with cervical cancer and children with acute leukemia. “I wanted to do better for those patients,” she says.
Bajaj was studying cancer stem cells and needed live samples. So, a nurse or doctor would summon her to the clinic when they had a piece of tumor; they would drop it into a tube and Bajaj would put in on ice and race across the city of Bangalore to her lab to analyze the cancer stem cell population.
Today, following a post-doctoral stint at University of California, San Diego, and her move to Wilmot, she is still investigating cancer stem cells — but her tools are much more sophisticated. Bajaj uses gene-editing CRISPR technology and a combination of fluorescence-activated cell sorter and magnetic cell sorter to separate as many as 300 million cells in a couple of hours. This is lightning-fast and more powerful than most technologies, allowing her lab to conduct experiments quickly and with high precision.
Bajaj is investigating the genes that fuel the earliest stages of aggressive blood cancers — a subpopulation of very active cells that control the spread of the disease — and how they function and interact with the microenvironment, the non-cancerous tissues that surround tumors. Using these advanced techniques, she has already discovered new genes linked to leukemia, a devastating disease, and recently published the findings in Nature Cancer. Her goal is to find treatments that can inactivate cancer stems cells.