Training the Next Generation

Pelotonia Fellowships Support & Encourage Future Cancer Researchers 

The Pelotonia Fellowship Program annually allots $2 million to help promising Ohio State students in any discipline or level of scholarship who want to conduct cancer research in the labs of OSUCCC – James faculty mentors.

Since the program started in 2010, it has awarded more than $13 million in fellowships for 433 cancer research projects undertaken by students, including 205 undergraduates, 128 graduates, 94 postdoctoral fellows and six professional students. In addition to these awards, the program has provided international research experiences for 21 Ohio State undergraduate students in India and Brazil, and it has brought 14 students from India and Brazil to contribute to cancer research in Ohio State labs.

The fellowships are peer-reviewed and issued by a  committee of faculty cancer researchers chaired by Joanna Groden, PhD, of the Molecular Biology and Cancer Genetics Program at the OSUCCC – James, and co-chaired by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, of the OSUCCC – James Cancer Control Program. Here’s a look at three recent Pelotonia fellowship recipients and their research.

Khara Walker

Khara WalkerAn exercise-science major who plans to attend medical school after graduating in August, Khara Walker has spent a year evaluating immunogenetics and long-term survival of patients with ocular (eye) melanoma in the lab of Mohamed Abdel-Rahmen, MD, PhD.

“The immune system is critical to combatting many cancers, but little is known about the details of the (body’s immune) response and why some patients live longer than others,” Walker writes in her project summary, adding that her team would try to determine key genes involved in immune responses by natural killer (NK) cells—immune cells that play an important role in controlling ocular melanoma. Walker and colleagues have looked at differences in immune responses in the original tumor and in secondary tumors throughout the body, correlating the responses with patient prognosis, time between recurrences and patient survival rates. “This information can provide a foundation for developing strategies to boost immune responses (that can) improve one’s chances of surviving cancer,” she writes.

Walker, who was a track athlete at Ohio State, faced two devastating setbacks in 2014: the death of her mother, who succumbed to cervical cancer, and a track injury that dashed her plans of running professionally after college to raise money for medical school. But in Walker’s words, she both “stepped back” from her depression to realize that cancer has affected not only her but others, and “stepped up” by earning a 2016 Pelotonia Fellowship Award that has enabled her to do something positive against cancer.

Busily preparing for Medical College Admission Tests, Khara will be a virtual rider in Pelotonia 17
instead of an actual rider as she was last year, but she knows her contribution will still be significant, because “every dollar raised, every mile pedaled, and every fellow who is funded” has an impact on this disease.

Peter Yu

Peter YuPeter Yu, an MD candidate in the class of 2018, devoted two years to full-time cancer research between his third and fourth years of medical school at Ohio State. That experience included a 2016-17 Pelotonia fellowship to study liposarcoma with mentors Denis Guttridge, PhD, and Raphael Pollock, MD, PhD.

“I started a small project in cancer research during my first two years of medical school, but it wasn’t until I started clinical rotations and was learning how to take care of patients with cancer that I realized I needed to return to the lab to advance cancer research,” Yu writes in his project summary. His work focuses on sarcomas—rare cancers that arise from bone, muscle and fat.

His Pelotonia-supported research involved liposarcoma, the second most common type of sarcoma. “A microRNA is a small molecule that can affect hundreds of genes at once. Our laboratory recently found that a microRNA that stops muscle cancer might also stop liposarcoma,” Yu says. “Understanding how this microRNA works in liposarcoma could lead us to more effective treatments.”

Yu, an Illinois native with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Northwestern University, says his Pelotonia fellowship not only enabled him to work with sarcoma cells in the lab, but also helped him realize that he wants to be an academic physician scientist in medical oncology. “I want to devote my career to thinking deeply and creatively about the biology of sarcomas and pinpoint vulnerabilities that lead to treatments that will save lives.”

He plans to ride the full 180 miles in Pelotonia 17 asco-captain of the BSR-Spin Doctors peloton, a part of Team Buckeye. “Riding in Pelotonia means bringing more hope to patients and their loved ones,” he says. “It means remembering those we have lost and fighting for those who need help.”

Emily Theisen, PhD

Emily ThiesenWhen Emily Theisen, a postdoctoral scientist in the lab of Stephen Lessnick, MD, PhD, at Nationwide Children’s Hospital (NCH), set out to earn her PhD in pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Utah College of Pharmacy, she didn’t plan to devote her research to childhood cancer.

“I just wanted to design better drugs. I think (the discipline of ) pediatric cancer found me, not the other way around,” Theisen says, explaining that her PhD project involved compounds that “serendipitously worked in two pediatric cancers: Ewing sarcoma and T-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia. We still don’t fully understand how these compounds work, and it strikes me that there’s so much we don’t know that could help kids with cancer.”

Two pediatric physicians became mentors to Theisen at Utah and “showed me how important research is in pediatric cancer. My hope is to stay in academia and run my own research program.”

At NCH, Theisen is part of a team that has what she calls “a laser focus on Ewing sarcoma.”

“Our group wants to bring insights gained from a deep understanding of basic disease biology to a place where they make a difference for patients,” he says. “The Pelotonia fellowship was the game changer for me. It’s allowed me to hire the first member of my team, a research technician. I can’t emphasize enough how much this support has impacted my decision to devote my career to pediatric cancer.”

Last year, she and her mother, a former tour cyclist, rode 25 miles in Pelotonia 16. In Pelotonia 17, Theisen will ride the full 180 miles with the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Peloton, and her mother will be a virtual rider. Noting that her mother “raised us to embrace challenges in life, always emphasizing running and biking uphill for fun,” Theisen looks forward to the road ahead.

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