Pelotonia Fellowships Fund Young Cancer Researchers
BY BOB HECKER
On the eve of Pelotonia 11, Michael A. Caligiuri, MD, stood before nearly 5,000 bicyclists and thanked them for escorting student researchers toward scientific stardom.
“We have many bright young minds here who, in today’s economy, had no chance of receiving external funding for their cancer research ideas,” said Caligiuri, director of Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).
This funding problem could discourage the next generation of great scientists from pursuing new cancer cures, he said. “But since all of you have stepped up, we have taken some of the money you have raised through this grassroots event and started a Pelotonia Fellowship Program that provides students with money to pursue their ideas.”
Caligiuri then invited the 60-some fellowship recipients in the audience to stand for applause. “This is the generation that’s going to bring home the cancer cures and prevention strategies.”
To date, the Pelotonia Fellowship Program has awarded 116 grants to 56 Ohio State undergraduates, 32 graduate students and two medical students, as well as 26 postdoctoral fellows from around the world. The awards go to selected students in any discipline who want to pursue a cancer research project under the guidance of an Ohio State faculty mentor.
In all, the Pelotonia bicycle tour has raised approximately $25.5 million from thousands of participating cyclists and virtual riders backed by pledges, and from individual donors. Thanks to a handful of underwriters, all the money raised by riders and donors goes to cancer research at the OSUCCC – James. About $2 million per year in Pelotonia funds is committed to the fellowship program.
A 17-member faculty committee chaired by Gustavo Leone, PhD, a professor in the Department of Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics, and associate director for basic research at the OSUCCC – James, awards the fellowships. The committee bases the awards on each applicant’s strengths and research potential, the mentor’s qualifications and training record, and the potential impact of the project.
“The students who receive fellowships are really inspiring,” says Program Director Jeff Mason. “It’s incredible how much they can contribute at such an early age.”
Here’s a look at three Pelotonia fellowship recipients – an undergraduate, a graduate student and a postdoctoral fellow – from among the many whose work is making a difference.
A senior in molecular genetics, Jonathan Lee is seeing firsthand how even the study of insects can contribute to cancer research. Working in the lab of Maki Asano, MD, PhD, of the Molecular Biology and Cancer Genetics Program at the OSUCCC – James, Lee is conducting a genomewide screening of Drosophila melanogaster, a species of fruit fly used by biologists as a model organism, to identify factors needed for a cell-cycle process called endoreduplication. This process occurs naturally in many cells, and it can help cancer cells escape programmed cell death, or apoptosis, enabling them to survive and proliferate.
“Our lab has found that a component of the prereplicative complex, called ORC1, is indispensable for endoreduplication,” Lee says. He is now working to identify other endoreduplication factors.
“We have screened 1,200 genes of the Drosophila genome, and we have several candidates that we will test further,” he says. “The findings could open new options for therapy, such as drugs targeting mitotic replication and endoreduplication in cancer cells.”
Lee says working in the Asano lab has taught him the importance of unity. “There needs to be a purpose that fuels the lab and its work. The person in charge of the project needs a unified sense of what it entails to address issues that may arise.”
When Salene Wu, a graduate student in Psychology, was a therapist on a clinical trial testing a treatment for depression among cancer survivors, she noticed they had worries that she didn’t see among her other patients.
“I wondered if these worries – mostly about their health and how it affected their loved ones – might be related to other aspects of their survivorship experience, like physical health and quality of life,” Wu says.
This question, together with her long-standing interest in connections between the mind and body, led her to investigate possible links between psychological factors such as anxiety and the immune system’s ability to fight cancer.
Working with Barbara Andersen, PhD, a professor of Psychology and member of the Cancer Control Program at the OSUCCC – James, Wu has asked women with advanced recurrent cancer to complete questionnaires about mood, worries and health, and to give a blood sample that will be analyzed for biomarkers ofinflammation.
“We will soon analyze data for 56 women. This is my second-favorite part of the study, after hearing survivors’ stories,” Wu says, adding that she will finish her analysis this spring and defend the project as her dissertation in June.
After earning her degree, she hopes to continue with both cancer survivorship research and working in patient care. “Being a researcher would allow me to deliver the most effective treatments possible, while being a clinician would help keep me grounded and inspired,” she says.
Wu felt honored to receive a Pelotonia fellowship. “I have been only a virtual rider in Pelotonia, but that’s a great option. Someone who doesn’t do well on a bike, like me, or is no longer in Ohio can still contribute. Grassroots efforts like this are crucial for medical research.”
Daniel Kiss, PhD
Intriguing research in the lab of Daniel Schoenberg, PhD, director of the Center for RNA Biology and a member of the Molecular Biology and Cancer Genetics Program at the OSUCCC – James, first attracted Daniel Kiss, PhD, to Ohio State as a postdoctoral fellow.
“The Schoenberg and other labs showed that a population of uncapped messenger RNAs (mRNAs) could be recapped in the cytoplasm of a cell,” says Kiss, who was pursuing his PhD at Case Western Reserve University when he learned of Schoenberg’s work. “This offered a mechanism by which mRNAs stored in processing bodies (P-bodies) could exit the P-bodies and re-enter the actively translating pool of mRNAs.”
Kiss says mechanisms governing the storage of silenced mRNAs in P-bodies and their escape from silencing remain mostly unknown but are important to cancer research because the protein products of both silenced and released mRNAs can alter cancer-cell behavior.
He is working to understand mRNA cycling and storage mechanisms, focusing on mRNAs cycling back to an active state. “This may identify mRNAs that promote malignancy, making this mRNA regulatory process a potential therapeutic target."
His Pelotonia fellowship enables him to study the relationship of P-bodies to the reactivation of mRNAs silenced by microRNA. Using a population of uncapped mRNAs identified by his colleagues as a starting point, he is employing bioinformatics to predict the positions of mRNA recapping and will then test those predictions in the lab.
Kiss views his Pelotonia fellowship both as recognition for his hard work as a graduate student and a challenge to work even harder now.
He rode a 43-mile Pelotonia route last year and is gearing up for a 100-mile Pelotonia ride this year. “I plan to ride every year I’m in Columbus, even after my fellowship has run its full duration.“