Neelima Bhat, Ob/Gyn research scientist, dedicated a lifetime to antibodies

After over 34 years at Stanford, Dr. Neelima Bhat, research scientist, will be hanging up her white coat in Teng Lab for the last time. Fresh out of her undergraduate back in the ‘80s, Bhat began her time at Stanford as a technician. Interested in immunology, she worked in Teng Lab producing human monoclonal antibodies.

If monoclonal antibodies sound familiar, that’s because over the last year and a half, they have been used to treat severe COVID-19 symptoms. These antibodies can be designed to target specific antigens, such as the COVID-19 spike protein. For those with COVID-19, the antibodies reduce viral loads and can lessen symptoms giving patient’s immune systems a fighting chance. Monoclonal antibodies can also be specifically tailored to boost the immune system against cancers and gynecologic diseases.

Less than two years into her time at Teng Lab, Bhat was so inspired by the research being done that she applied to graduate school and was accepted at Stanford’s Cancer Biology program. As a graduate student, she studied another type of innate antibody, polyreactive antibodies. This antibody naturally occurs in the human body and can bind to a number of structurally unrelated molecules. Because of their versatility, polyreactive antibodies are considered a first line of defense in bacterial and other infections.

“My PhD research project led me to this unique class of antibodies encoded by the VH4-34 gene,” Bhat said. “VH4-34 gene encoded antibodies are at the crossroads of diverse clinical areas from immune regulation to cancer therapy to infection. Its regulation and secretion has an impact on several fields.”

After graduating in 1993, Bhat returned to Teng Lab where she continued to study the VH4-34 gene encoded antibodies to this day. Over the years, the antibody has been found to be connected to autoimmune disorders from systemic lupus erythematosus to hairy cell leukemia.

Bhat’s accomplishments includes a breakthrough clinical trial that truly epitomizes the spirit of precision medicine’s bench to bedside research arc. “From 2005-2008, we did a phase I trial for the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia with a VH4-34 gene encoded antibody,” Bhat said. “That we did it without the backing of big pharma is amazing. No one does phase I trials without big pharma.”

Bhat shares that achievement with Drs. Nelson Teng and Marcia Bieber, a PhD researcher. She also named Dr. Leonore Herzenberg, Professor in the Department of Genetics. “I’ll always be grateful to Dr. Herzenberg for taking me under her wing. She guided me a lot in my research,” Bhat shared. “It has been quite a ride. I will miss Stanford a lot.”

When asked what she will miss the most, she exclaimed joyfully, “It’s full of smart scientists. To be in that environment was so uplifting because the research being done is just phenomenal. To just be there, I was very grateful. Particularly the research on immunology, there’s so many famous people in the field who work here. I am going to have withdrawal symptoms!”