Swetha Kannan

Swetha Kannan

Swetha Kannan was 12 years old when she decided she wanted to unravel the mysteries of cancer.

Twelve years later, Swetha has launched a social enterprise to support the mental health of cancer patients in India. She’s helped to design a portable diagnostics tool to detect head and neck cancers. And she’s now studying for a PhD in immunology. Her long-term goal is to serve as a physician-scientist working at the intersection of immunology and oncology.

You’ve wanted to make a difference from a young age. How has your choice of research fed into this?

My ambition is to understand cancer better, particularly from an immunological perspective, and to offer people an equitable chance of treatment.

In Cambridge, my PhD research is focused on studying why immune systems don’t function as well as they should in old age and how this may link to poorer immune-surveillance and responsiveness in the elderly to cancer, infections and vaccines.

But I’ve also been working independently with oncologists back in India since 2020.

At the start of the pandemic, when in-person lab work at the University became remote, I took the chance to expand on my research skills by working with Dr Vishal Rao at HCG Cancer Centre in Bangalore. He is a big name in head and neck surgical oncology and at the time was also working on novel immunotherapeutic approaches for COVID-19.

The University supported me through pilot entrepreneurial grants from Trinity Hall, where I'm a postgraduate student, and mentorship through the University’s Bio-Spark Programme for early-stage scientists.

Dr Vishal Rao and Swetha Kannan

Dr Vishal Rao and Swetha

Dr Vishal Rao and Swetha

Working with Dr Rao has been such a productive experience leading to several publications. More importantly, not only has it given me a deeper understanding of immunology and oncology, but it’s also helped me develop a strong sense of purpose in my passion for research.

What inspired you to start this journey?

Growing up in India, my memories are that cancer was a cursed word that came with fear of death. I was in Grade 7 at school when I first became curious about the mysteries of cancer and why we don’t have a definitive cure.

In 2018, my own world came crashing down when my beloved grandmother was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. I was her primary caregiver. It was so distressing to see the toll that treatment took on her physically and emotionally.

During and after her cancer treatment, I started shadowing several renowned oncologists in India, including her own – Dr Rani Bhat – and this has by far been the most humbling experience for me. It opened my eyes to how complex cancer is as a disease and how care must be multi-factorial and holistic to sustain the overall quality of life of patients.

I also shadowed Dr Rao for a few months after conducting research with him. He once said to me: “Swetha, the goal must be to heal patients of their cancer not merely treat it.” As someone coping with chronic anxiety and panic disorder, this hugely resonated with me.

“There are over 1.4 million cancer patients in India, at least a third of whom also have chronic mental illness. The experience of supporting my grandmother and working with oncologists in India really opened my eyes that we need to do something to improve this situation.”

How did you approach finding a solution?

When I was 19, and an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, I founded a non-profit organisation. The Lalitha Foundation – named after my grandmother – is committed to improving the mental health of cancer patients in India and is supported by a fellowship from the Clinton Global Initiative University.

My first step was to contact medical students and doctors to help spread the word. Having oncologists as contacts from my past work experience was hugely helpful with this. Within a few weeks we had a couple of hundred sign-ups. Next, with the help of mental health specialists, we started training volunteers in how to talk to patients. We now have volunteers in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Assam.

By raising awareness on mental health and cancer, we’ve created safe places for people to open up and talk to their oncologists. I’ve seen families becoming more supportive as a result.

We currently operate with a team of 100 volunteers and, in 2023, were honoured with the Diana Award, the most prestigious humanitarian accolade young people can receive for their social work. In May 2024, I was also honoured with the Vice Chancellor’s Social Impact Award at the University of Cambridge for these efforts.

“By raising awareness of mental health and cancer, we’ve created safe places for people to open up and talk to their oncologists.”

Swetha Kannan

You are also passionate about increasing access to cancer care in India. What has this led to?

The mortality rate in rural areas of India, where 70% of the population live, is twice that of urban areas, mostly because diagnostics and treatment centres are in cities. I started to think about how people living in rural areas could be better supported.

Working with Dr Rao, I helped design a portable diagnostics technology: it’s a quantum electron tunnelling based spectroscope. It works by looking for changes in electron transfer pathways in mitochondria, which is the process for how energy is transferred and stored in our cells. The changes can be used as a proxy of whether the cells are in a pre-cancer stage.

The pilot experiments for this work were supported by the Lee-Yung Family Fund for Entrepreneurship at Trinity Hall and we went on to be named as winners of their competition recognising the most novel, promising tool among those that secured the preliminary grant.

We’re now working with collaborators at the Indian Institute of Science to help us scale down the size of the spectroscope so that it can be more transportable and easily accessible in rural areas, where tobacco consumption leads to a high incidence of head and neck cancers.

I’m also working with Dr Rao on the development of a cancer drug that can be given as a pill to enable ‘chemo at home’ for cancer patients in rural areas who struggle with accessing intravenous chemotherapy. It was recently awarded a patent by the Indian Government.

Where do you find your inspiration today?

A lot of my inspiration still comes from my grandmother. She’s 85 and always really interested in what I’m doing. She is really hopeful of what science can do. She’s also someone who I hugely look up to and learn from as a person because she’s always emphasised the importance of being kind, compassionate and hopeful in a world that can seem otherwise. She teaches me to use any and all privileges to help others find theirs.

Swetha and her grandmother Lalitha

Swetha and her grandmother Lalitha

Swetha and her grandmother Lalitha

When would you say youre most fulfilled?

My biggest fulfilment comes from patient interactions when I’m working with oncologists back home. I find great satisfaction and peace in holding a patient’s hand and alongside the doctors, explaining to them the nature of their disease and treatment. I also find it extremely meaningful to be able to talk to their caregivers and help break stigmas associated with the disease in India, such as it being contagious through physical contact, which can lead to patients feeling very isolated.

And your hopes for the future of cancer?

My biggest hope is for care to be more personalised and equitable. It’s really unfair that so many people are restricted in their ability to be treated with the best possible therapeutics because of where they are, or which part of society they belong to.

The new Cambridge Cancer Research Hospital being built here will be a crucial first step towards inclusive equitable cancer care. Hopefully people can build on lessons from the work here and take that forward to their own home countries to make treatments more equitable everywhere.

Swetha Kannan is a PhD student in the Department of Medicine, a postgraduate student at Trinity Hall and a member of the Cancer Immunology Programme at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre.

Published: June 2024

Interview and words: Zoe Smith
Design: Alison Fair
Photography: Nick Saffell
Editor: Louise Walsh

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Support cancer research at Cambridge

Cambridge hosts a cancer research community responsible for globally significant breakthroughs and innovations.

Together we are changing the way cancer is treated. Our scientists will make discoveries alongside expert clinicians treating patients, drawing on the world-leading expertise found within the University and across the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. 

We will find cancer earlier and treat it better. Join us.