Stephanie Besoiu & Petya Popova win 2022 Zymeworks Fellowship in Immunotherapeutics
Dr. Michael Murphy, Stephanie Besoiu, Petya Popova, and Dr. Martin Hirst are standing in a row smiling with the two women in the middle holding their awards.
Dec 20, 2022

We are pleased to congratulate Stephanie Besoiu and Petya Popova, recipients of the 2022 Zymeworks Fellowship in Immunotherapeutics. This award is offered to two graduate students each year, one from UBC’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology (M&I) and one from the Michael Smith Laboratories (MSL). Zymeworks Inc., a leading BC-based biotechnology company, has partnered with both M&I and MSL to fund these awards, providing single year fellowships of $20,000 each that support research focused on the discovery and development of biologic and immune-therapeutics.


PhD candidate Petya Popova (she/her) is studying the development and applications of RNA therapeutics technology. Originally from Bulgaria, Popova joined the Blakney lab at the Michael Smith Laboratories in September 2021 in the biomedical engineering program, having completed a Masters in Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology from University of Southern Denmark. With an extensive background working with RNA and lipid nanoparticle (LNP) technologies, Popova is interested to further explore the immunogenicity of larger RNA therapeutics.

“I truly believe this technology has the potential to tackle many diseases and be applied to personalized medicine and in the prevention of bacterial diseases,” explains Popova.

The broad applications for RNA therapeutic technologies are promising, especially following the clinical success of the COVID-19 vaccines developed during the pandemic. Popova’s research focuses on a new application of this technology; using RNA and LNPs to help the immune system recognize different pathogens and fight them more effectively, protecting people from a variety of infections.

“I am exploring immune mechanisms and protective capacity of messenger RNA and self-amplifying RNA vaccines against Chlamydia. I am excited to see whether mRNA and saRNA can find application against bacterial infections and chronic diseases. The Zymeworks Fellowship will allow me to take this work a step further and explore how we can improve vaccine formulations,” says Popova.

Inspired to be part of the female led Blakney lab, focused on novel gene delivery formulations and their interactions with the immune system, Popova and her colleagues are striving to develop next generation therapeutics that will revolutionize the way we treat bacterial and chronic disease.

Fellowship award recipient Stephanie Besoiu (she/her) is a member of the Jefferies lab in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology as well as the MSL. Her main research focuses on a relatively new identified type of immune cell called type 2 innate lymphoid cells (ILC2s). The lab has discovered that these immune cells seem to be involved in anti-tumour immune responses, identifying that these cells have a novel ability to activate cytotoxic T cells against tumours.

Since antigen presentation pathways are so essential for generating both anti-tumour and vaccine immune responses, Besoiu’s project focuses on trying to unravel the molecular mechanisms involved in this process by ILC2s. Overall, her work opens a multitude of avenues for immunotherapeutic development.

“This award is an incredible way to begin my PhD career,” says Besoiu. “It allows me to conduct the essential basic research that could advance vaccine and cancer immunotherapeutic development while building connections with industry partners.”

Her main goal is to increase the predictability of vaccine immune responses, accelerating vaccine development in the face of another global pandemic.

The work of these two outstanding students will surely drive forward our understanding of immune-therapeutics and their applications. We look forward to seeing where their research projects take them and thank our industry partners at Zymeworks for supporting this important research.


This story was original published on the UBC Michael Smith Laboratories News