Headshot of Gay Crooks in a blue sweater

Q&A with Dr. Gay Crooks: “5 Questions With”

By Nicole Wilkins | Mar 29, 2022 Meet a BSCRC Scientist

In celebration of Women’s History Month and in preparation for the upcoming LA Best Bioscience Ecosystem Summit this spring, we spoke with Dr. Gay Crooks about her research at UCLA, her quest to change the way cancer is treated and her love of Los Angeles as a great ecosystem for science.

Dr. Crooks is the Rebecca Smith Professor in the Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics in the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. Dr. Crooks is the co-founder of Pluto Immunotherapeutics, a startup company in the Magnify incubator at the California NanoSystems Institute that is working to build the next generation of “off-the-shelf” cellular immunotherapies. She is also Director of the Immunology, Infection, Inflammation and Transplantation theme for DGSOM and a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research and Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

*Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity

Q: What makes UCLA such a special, collaborative place for science, research, and commercialization?

A: UCLA and the research community here are founded on great science by lots of clever people. But more than anything, this collaborative atmosphere, and this ecosystem that we have here is special. Partly it’s the weather (laughs) but also everything you could need is here on campus. There’s almost nothing that’s more than five minutes’ walk away, and that includes the hospital. The clinical enterprise is very close to the research enterprise, and that research enterprise — which is so multidisciplinary — is very close to all the other disciplines. Engineering and math and the law school and the biomedical efforts are all close together here at UCLA.

Q: Your research led to you co-founding a startup company, Pluto Immunotherapeutics, working to change the way we treat cancer. How did you come up with the name?

A: The reason I came up with Pluto was because what we have invented is a way to make T cells from pluripotent cells, so it’s ‘PLUripotent’ ‘T’ cells. Hence Pluto was born. I was trying to marry the two because the innovation starts from these amazing pluripotent stem cells that can make anything at all. What we’ve done is to find a way to differentiate pluripotent stem cells into the T cells of the immune system, which is a road to travel from their initial starting point as pluripotent stem cells. What we want to do now with this discovery is make an immunotherapy based around T cells that is “off-the-shelf” and available to a large number of people.

Q: What does the Magnify incubator at CNSI provide to startup companies, like Pluto Immunotherapeutics?

A: The way modern science is done now is collaborative – gone are the days of a lone scientist working late at night in a lab. You need everything from the undergraduate student who helps in the lab and has great ideas, all the way to the PI. The whole infrastructure of the university has to be working together and it does so beautifully at UCLA.

The Magnify space is the latest evolution of that process. It is an essential part of translating the basic science and then ultimately making these small companies at UCLA a reality. Magnify makes that happen because it provides us with space in a way that a very early-stage company struggles to access- a company has to find enough funding before they can hire enough people to justify expensive lab space off campus. And it also brings together young budding translational scientists. At Magnify we are sharing space with some of our colleagues that we used to share space within the research laboratories on campus.

Q: What is it like to be a clinician seeing patients, a researcher, and a co-founder of a company? And what advice do you have for other budding female entrepreneurs and scientists?

A: From my own experience, I’ve come to being a founder of a company quite late in my career. My career has really been grounded in medicine and science and in training young scientists, and I wasn’t aiming for a commercial product at all. I was enjoying the science as it was, but the beautiful thing about science is it takes you on journeys and you don’t know where you’re going to end up.

The great thing about UCLA and this ecosystem is that it allows you to reach a part of that journey where something is possible in terms of translation. I wouldn’t have thought that I was capable of that and that’s not what my training was, but I saw so many examples of people moving to this next phase here in California, and specifically in Los Angeles. I also had the way to make it happen through Magnify and through the efforts of TDG to patent our ideas and protect. It was really this ecosystem that made me realize that the scientific discoveries had legs to go somewhere else.

The advice that I would give is that the stronger your science is the better you’ll be in industry. I would say, take advantage of all the incredible resources on campus to learn – to have as broad a scientific experience during your Ph.D. or your undergraduate studies. Don’t just get narrowed down, get great depth in your science but get breadth as well.

Q: Looking at Pluto Immunotherapeutics, science is headed in so many exciting directions. Where do you see science headed?

A: Even though this is an incredibly exciting time to be translating from the basic science into clinic, it is all based on the basic science. We should never lose our focus on supporting great basic biology, engineering, right down to molecular questions and physical questions because they are the foundation for the great science that is done here at UCLA and in the US in general. That’s what I want to make sure that people remember, is that all of this is based on the basic discoveries that have come before us.